Ball: Mark Mcgwire's 70th Home Run Ball and the Marketing of the American Dream

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In a small factory in Costa Rica, a worker stitches about fifty cents' worth of tanned cowhide over a tightly wound mass of string and rubber and sticks it in a box. Nine months later, that same sphere is auctioned for three million dollars. This book tells what happened in between - how that ball, now bearing secret infrared markings, found its way into an umpire's pocket, up to a pitcher's mound, off Mark McGwire's bat, into Phil Ozersky's glove, and then into Time, Newsweek, People, USA Today, Tonight with Jay...
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Overview

In a small factory in Costa Rica, a worker stitches about fifty cents' worth of tanned cowhide over a tightly wound mass of string and rubber and sticks it in a box. Nine months later, that same sphere is auctioned for three million dollars. This book tells what happened in between - how that ball, now bearing secret infrared markings, found its way into an umpire's pocket, up to a pitcher's mound, off Mark McGwire's bat, into Phil Ozersky's glove, and then into Time, Newsweek, People, USA Today, Tonight with Jay Leno, and a bulletproof Plexiglas box guarded like the Hope diamond. It becomes the target of every fantasy about heroes, marketing, and money. Donald Trump gives it a press conference. The IRS threatens to tax it. One man wants to chop it up into a million pieces to be sewn into collectible dolls. Another who made zillions in comic books covets it. And at the heart of the story is the real hero, Phil Ozersky, who just wants to meet McGwire and then do a little good with the money.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Paisner (The Imperfect Mirror, etc.) believes that Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball just might hold part of the secret to what it means to be American today. From the moment it was stitched in a Rawlings plant in Costa Rica to the moment it sold for just over $3 million to comic book publisher Tod McFarlane, this one particular baseball provides a kind of cultural looking glass. (The idea that a home run ball could carry America's cultural DNA will be familiar to readers of Don DeLillo's Underworld, the prologue to which follows the trajectory of Bobby Thomson's 1951 pennant-winning blast). The ball, as Paisner traces it, infects its possessor and those who wish to possess it with a particularly American kind of greed. Everybody, of course, wants it, but Paisner sees America as having passed a new threshhold in the transmutation of emotional value into market value. McGwire's home run ball is a good example of the phenomenon, but it's an awfully small object to carry all the implications of the cultural criticism with which Paisner tries to stamp it. Paisner is most interesting when he digs behind the scenes with his reporter's pad in clear view--for example, when he talks to regular people who thought they hated baseball but were nonetheless swept up by the 1998 season, or to Major League Baseball officials who were in charge of organizing security details for McGwire and Sammy Sosa. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This fascinating book documents the backstage machinations concerning the fate of the ball Mark McGwire hit in the last home run of his record-setting 1998 season. That 70th home run ball represented a multitude of values to different interests--a tremendous achievement to McGwire, a historical artifact to the baseball Hall of Fame, and a potential source of great wealth to many others, including the man who caught the ball and assorted lawyers, agents, memorabilia dealers, collectors, auction houses, and interested corporations. Along the way, earlier home run balls hit by both McGwire and challenger Sammy Sosa become part of the story, with some of those ball owners also looking for a lucrative payday but others forgoing the auction route and handing over their prizes to Cooperstown. In this tale of modern society, great emphasis is given to the search for one ultimate score to set oneself up for a life of leisure and success. Some emerge with dignity intact, but many do not. Paisner tells the story completely and writes in a breezy yet gripping prose that is sure to hold the reader's attention. Highly recommended.--John M. Maxymuk, Rutgers Univ., Camden, NJ Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A shocking, funny, and detailed record exposing the excessive market value of collectibles. Paisner (Horizontal Hold:The Making and Breaking of a Network Television Pilot,1992), who has pinch-hit for the likes of Ed Koch, George Pataki, Geraldo, Montel, and Whoopi, here depicts how Mark McGwire's historic 70th home run ball was manufactured for about five bucks and ultimately sold for over three million. Paisner follows research scientist Phil Ozersky, who caught "the ball," nearly gave it up (as some kids did with other valuable balls), and nervously held on while a string of agents, auction houses, and bidders led a financial feeding frenzy. Although a fan who understands sports collectibles, Paisner sees the absurdity of throwing around dollars "as if they'd been printed by Milton Bradley, when the market capitalization of fledgling Internet companies rivals the gross national product of, say, Belgium." We are prepared for Ozersky's ordeal and triumph when reading of the $93,500 for the Bill Buckner ball (1968 World Series) and the fates of other McGwire and Sosa balls in 1998. Paisner also reveals proposed product tie-ins, including a line of clothes, a credit card hologram of "the ball" and slugger Beanie Babies. It's madness from the moment Ozersky catches "the ball" and is hustled to an office by Busch Stadium cops past beer-dousing fans. "He's clutching so tight to the ball, it might hold a secret formula for world peace." It might hold fortune, as Sotheby's sold Tyrannosaurus rex bones for million, and "stupid money" went for Princess Diana's wedding gown. An auction at Madison Square Garden gets "the ball" to comic book czar Todd McFarlane. Ozersky gets his millionclear, "but his life was no longer his own." At least Ozersky finally gets to meet McGwire, the hero whose priceless trophy he has sold. A powerful metaphor of how our materialistic greed turns cowhide into a mutimillion-dollar holy grail.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670887767
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • Publication date: 8/1/1999
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 4.76 (w) x 7.82 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Infrared,
White, and
Blue


Or, How an Official
Baseball Got Its Spots


What happens when a thing needs doing and it's never been done before?

    Well, if you work in a corporate setting, chances are you take a meeting—and if you work in baseball's corporate offices, you take that meeting at the ballpark.

    Such a meeting took place on Saturday, August 29, 1998, beneath the Busch Stadium stands, and the key items on the agenda were the role of Major League Baseball in authenticating the record home run balls and in providing security in the outfield seating areas. The meeting was called by Kevin Hallinan, executive director of security for Major League Baseball. Also in attendance were two members of Hallinan's staff, Ruben Puente and Linda Pantell, and several members of the Cardinals organization, including vice president of stadium operations Joe Abernathy, director of stadium operations Mike Bertani, director of security Joe Walsh, and equipment manager Buddy Bates. Serendipitously, the Cardinals were playing the Atlanta Braves at the time of the meeting, and Hallinan asked the Braves' traveling secretary Bill Acree to sit in; in 1974, Acree had been involved in the marking of the balls pitched to Henry Aaron as he approached Babe Ruth's all-time home run mark.

    Hallinan thought Acree could tell them how the Braves marked the Aaron balls, but there was nothing to tell. Team officials just slapped some hand-scratched numbers on the balls and threw them outthere, Acree said. Nothing fancy. Now they were talking about special technology and invisible markings. It was a whole new ballgame—which, when you work in baseball's corporate offices, is often the case.

    Hallinan considered his position. To the best of anyone's recollection, the only other time game balls had been marked was during Cal Ripken's march on Lou Gehrig's consecutive game record, and that effort was handled quietly by the Baltimore Orioles. Here, Hallinan was about to pass the responsibility for marking the 1998 balls to Bates, but as he spoke to Acree he realized he'd be off-loading a tremendous responsibility on him and on the Cardinals. Right then, he realized baseball would have to take the lead on this because what they were facing was bigger than just the Cardinals. Of course, Hallinan also had the Cubs to consider, with Sosa making his own push at the record, but what he meant was that it was a bigger responsibility than any one team should have to undertake. The integrity of the game was on the line.

    Before Hallinan could move to the next point on his list, the stadium began to rumble with what was happening on the field. Outside, in the real world, Mark McGwire had been tossed from the game by home plate umpire Sam Holbrook for arguing a third strike, and from the noise that reached these security officials in their small meeting area, it didn't sound as if the fans were happy about it. Immediately, Hallinan said, they switched into security mode and broke the meeting to help quiet the crowd. They had the radio on, and one of the announcers worried a riot would break out in the stands.

    The incident reminded those in charge what they already knew: Security would be as much of a problem as authenticating the baseballs. To Hallinan's thinking, it was even more of a concern; the last thing he wanted was for someone to get hurt. There'd be enough cameras focused on the baseballs and the people who caught them that it was likely his staff could authenticate them without much trouble. People were talking like these baseballs could be worth as much as $1 million, and he wasn't about to see some little kid trampled in the crush to get the ball. Hallinan's staff began to use terms like "ticket integrity," when speaking about ways to keep fans in their assigned sections, and "crowd management," when considering how to block vendors from working the aisles when McGwire or Sosa were at bat. There was the first mention of "extraction teams," security personnel assigned to remove the ball and its new owner from the scene. Hallinan commissioned a statistical analysis of the home run histories and proclivities of both sluggers to determine the eventuality of balls being hit in certain areas. He did this knowing McGwire tended to hit his home runs pretty much in the same place each time out, and Sosa tended to spray them all over the field, but he wanted to be as thorough in his approach as possible. He consulted some of the top stadium operation people in the National and American Leagues, wanting their thoughts on what security programs had worked successfully in their ballparks.

    In the end, Hallinan went with his gut and with what he already had. He pooled his in place Resident Security Agents, active duty police officers employed by Major League Baseball in every major league city, and assigned them to McGwire and Sosa details. On a full schedule, there were games in only fifteen ballparks on any given day, which meant that half his RSA force was available to travel to Cubs and Cardinals games and offer assistance. Hallinan's plan was to outfit these officers with white Major League Baseball jackets and caps and deploy them in strategic outfield locations. From these posts, they would be able to assist stadium ushers and team security personnel and the local police. They could circulate among the fans and get them thinking about safety issues and what might happen if a ball should come their way. They would also be able to implement Hallinan's crowd management and ticket integrity strategies, which were sometimes referred to as McGwire or Sosa "shifts." The word called to mind the defensive realignments managers put in place against can't-help-but-pull hitters like Willie McCovey and Dave Kingman, but it was more of a shutdown than a shift. No fan could go into or out of an outfield section without a corresponding ticket stub; no vendors could work in outfield sections during the half innings when McGwire or Sosa were due to bat; and no movement would be allowed in the aisles when they were at the plate.

    "The fans who bought those seats had a right to be there," Hallinan said, "but they also had a right to be there safely."

    For the tasks of marking and tracking the baseballs, Hallinan turned to Ruben Puente, a meticulous man who once worked the crime lab for the Arlington Police Department and was now a member of Hallinan's full-time staff. Puente quickly devised a way to mark all the balls to be pitched to McGwire sequentially, with a visible stamped number in footnote position atop the "s" of the Rawlings logo. In addition, he would mark the balls around the lacing with a distinct, invisible stamp, able to be seen under black or infrared light. His plan, once the leading home run hitter reached 59 home runs, was to put the first marked ball into play, and then the second, and the third, and so forth. If a ball left the field, the next in line took its place. If a ball was scuffed, or no longer suitable for game use, it was set aside for its succeeding number. Each ball would be tracked by one of Puente's associates, Linda Pantell, whose principal job was to bring the marked baseballs to each Cardinals game and record the fate of each ball in the series. If McGwire fouled one into the left field stands, Pantell would write it down. If he flied out to left, she'd write that down too.

    To begin, Puente special ordered eight dozen baseballs direct from Rawlings on August 29, which were shipped directly to his office in Arlington from the company's Springfield, Missouri warehouse. The balls, according to codes burned into the underside of the cowhide covers at the Rawlings plant in Turrialba, Costa Rica, were manufactured in late June. Puente personally marked each ball in the sequence, and hand carried them to his suite at the Adam's Mark Hotel in downtown St. Louis, across the street from Busch Stadium. There, on Thursday, September 3, an off day, they were rubbed with Lena Blackburne's Rubbing Mud by Cardinals equipment manager Buddy Bates and his assistant Kurt Schlogl, while Puente and Pantell looked on. (Bates and Schlogl brought over a small tin of the mud from the Cardinals' equipment room, knowing the stuff probably wasn't available on the Adam's Mark room service menu.)

    As each ball was rubbed, and as Bates and Schlogl dried their hands on hotel towels, Pantell numbered the slots in the sectioned Rawlings shipping box. She had the idea to place each ball in its matching slot, so that she and her colleagues could quickly determine their place in the sequence, and once the balls were rubbed and replaced, she fit the entire box into a small, wheeled suitcase, the kind a stewardess might carry on an overnight assignment.

    By Friday, September 4, the first game of a weekend series against the Cincinnati Reds, the balls were ready—and just in time. McGwire had gone on a tear in Florida, hitting two home runs against the Martins on September 1 and another two on September 2, bringing his season total to 59 and leaving Puente to wonder how it was he was nearly caught short. Sosa wouldn't hit his 59th until September 11 in Chicago, so for the moment the authentication effort was focused exclusively on McGwire. Later, when Sosa hit his 60th and 61st with unmarked balls, reporters and critics charged Major League Baseball with a subtle form of racism for focusing on McGwire's efforts over Sosa's.

    Here again, Puente wondered at being caught short. It wasn't racism at all. It wasn't anything but not realizing how big this home run race had become, how much it meant, and to how many people. No one in his office had intended to keep marking the balls for the rest of the season. They thought they'd get to 62 and that would be it. That was the milestone. Maybe they'd reconnoiter and jump-start the effort at the end of the season, but it was never the plan to carry it out the entire way. People didn't realize the expense that went into an operation such as this. There was the cost of the balls, but that was minimal. There was the full-time attention of four members of Hallinan's staff: Puente, Pantell, Ed Petersen, and Al Williams. There were travel and hotel expenses for all five and for as many as 12 RSAs. With nearly another month to run in the season, the total costs for marking and security could reach into the six figures.

    Ultimately, though, Hallinan decided to continue the effort and to extend it to the remaining Cubs games as well, dispatching two full security details to travel with McGwire and Sosa the rest of the way. Pantell and Williams continued with the Cardinals, and Puente headed the Cubs effort, and at one point there were two groups of eight RSAs on the home run detail. There were two sets of balls, too. Puente left behind enough of the original batch of marked balls to see Pantell and McGwire through, and he set off with Sosa and the Cubs and a new batch of balls. Like the McGwire lot, these were also marked sequentially, beginning with number one, but the invisible markings were unique. Puente didn't load up on these balls, however, because he was able to tag new balls from his hotel room on the road; he could even tag them during the game, if it came to that. He never knew how long the balls would last. They could go through a dozen balls in a single at bat, or they could last two games. As it happened, Sosa went through more balls than McGwire, on a relative basis.

    "He kept fouling them off," Puente explained of Sosa. "McGwire was very frugal with his."


    The St. Louis-based Rawlings Sporting Goods Company has been making baseballs the same way since 1977, when it was awarded the exclusive manufacturing contract for Major League Baseball. In fact, the baseballs have been essentially the same since 1931, when the Reach Sporting Goods Company, which was later bought by Spalding, developed the cushioned cork center to help the ball hold its shape. Prior to 1931, baseballs were known to flatten on one side if they were hit too hard; reports of routine fly balls wobbling through the air like misshapen eggs were not uncommon, but it took the notion of encasing two rubber shells around a small sphere of composition cork to end what is now known as the dead-ball era.

    In the late 1800s, professional baseballs were not manufactured according to standard guidelines, which meant you could stuff pretty much anything you wanted between two pieces of leather, and if it somehow came out looking like a baseball it could find its way into a professional game. Typically, the home teams were responsible for supplying the balls, and a home team manager might run out a dead baseball when his team was in the field and a more lively baseball when his team was at the plate. Such were the nuances of the game (and the advantages of home field). Manufacturers advertised "the deadest balls made," in hopes of winning the business of defensive-minded teams. According to the first Official Baseball Guide, published in 1878, game-used balls became the property of the winning team, and budget-conscious equipment managers hoarded those early baseballs like rare tobacco cards; there was even a rule requiring umpires to suspend play for at least five minutes to look for a lost ball before putting a new one into play.

    With no real guidelines in place and with dozens of suppliers lobbying for the business of big league clubs, the weight and circumference of balls varied widely—often from one inning to the next. By 1872, however, the ball reached today's standards: between 5 and 5 1/4 ounces in weight and 9 and 9 1/4 inches in circumference. Within those narrow constraints, 125 years later, there still exists a margin for error, and Rawlings baseballs are subject to a series of tests to ensure compliance with contemporary Major League Baseball regulations. Almost every ball is weighed, most are measured, and many are sampled—at various points throughout the assembly process. Out of every lot, several dozen balls are sent to Rawlings' quality control center in Ava, Missouri, where they are tested for C.O.R., or coefficient of restitution. The tested balls are like lab rats injected with toxins: There's no real hope for them after they're put through their paces. The balls are fired from an air cannon at a rate of 85 feet per second, or about 45 miles per hour, and shot against a wall made of northern white ash, the wood used in almost every major league baseball bat. If the ball rebounds at slightly more than half its initial velocity (.51 to .58 percent), it is deemed official. Clearly, the tested balls are no longer suitable for game use after such as this (unless it is a game to be played by lab rats), but the matching lot is shipped from holding bays in the company's Springfield, Missouri, warehouse to major league clubhouses around the country.

    Rawlings supplies approximately 90,000 dozen baseballs each year to to major league baseball clubs. That's a lot of baseballs—over one million, give or take a couple dozen. Neither Rawlings, nor major league baseball officials, will reveal the wholesale price of a single ball, but it is understood to be about $5. (Internally, a team like the St. Louis Cardinals charges its players $5 for balls used for promotional giveaways or charitable donations.) The same ball is sold to the general public at sporting goods, hardware, drug, and department stores at prices ranging from $8 to $12.

    Usually, a baseball will find its way into a game within two to three months of final assembly at the Rawlings plant in the small farming village of Turrialba, Costa Rica, an area known more for its sugarcane and macadamia nuts than for its contribution to the national pastime. Here, by the local soccer stadium (the official mailing address of the factory is "Behind the Rafael Camacho Stadium"), some five hundred workers put the finishing touches on as many as 1,000 dozen baseballs each day, all year long. It is a curious assembly line, drawing on materials from throughout the United States.

    The ball's chief visible element, the grade one cowhide leather that holds the ball together, is purchased through the A. Mindel & Sons hide brokerage in Toledo, Ohio, which gets its goods from cattle farms and slaughterhouses throughout the midwest. The hides ate then shipped on flatbed trucks—on palettes stacked fifty high—to the Rawlings-owned Tennessee Tanning Company, in Tullahoma, Tennessee, where they are cured, soaked, stretched, tanned, and cut into the figure eight-shaped swatches that will become the balls' stitched together covers. Hides used during the 1998 baseball season were purchased at market prices ranging from $40 to $64. The "harvest" on each hide, after stretching, yields approximately twenty-two square feet of usable leather, which in turn yields a matched set of covers for about seven dozen baseballs. That's roughly thirteen thousand hides for the season, allowing for trim waste and deficiencies in the grain.

    The leather, a by-product of the dairy and meat packing industries, comes mostly from holstein and guernsey cows, the hides of which tend to be thin and offer a fairly large surface area for cutting. (Until 1974, the balls were held together by horsehide, when a supply problem caused a run-up in prices and a hardly acknowledged shift to routine.) The cowhides arrive in Tullahoma in a green-salted condition, after having been cured in a brine solution to kill bacteria. At the tannery, the hides are soaked and rehydrated in a fresh water-based detergent, and unhaired with a chemical process to break down the hair protein keratin. The leather is then tanned with an aluminum sulfate tannage to give it the natural white color of a from-the-box baseball, and even then, the folks at the tannery will have to add some pigment to get the color just right.

    Mike Cunningham, plant manager of Rawlings' Tennessee tannery, tells how in the Book of Matthew, in the New Testament, the tanner was made to live on the outskirts of the city, because the work was so dirty. No one wanted this guy around. It is still very much an ugly business, Cunningham says, and it's hard to get clean, but it's the kind of ugly business that gets in your blood. It's like railroading, he says. Most people grow up around it, they don't mind it too much.

    Ironically, or perhaps just coincidentally, Heath Wiseman, the young veterinary student who caught Mark McGwire's 68th home run ball, was raised on a 1,500-acre cattle farm in Bryant, South Dakota. As a kid, he never thought of the cattle on his farm in terms of the baseballs he played with, or even the glove he wore, until it was about wore out. This strikes Wiseman now as somewhat surprising, seeing how baseball played as big a part in his growing up as cattle. For a time, he roamed center field for an amateur baseball team not far from his hometown. He supposes he always knew, on some level, that the gloves and balls of the game he loved flowed at least in some secondary way from the farm he worked with his father, but he never thought about it much.

    To Wiseman, the couple hundred head of cattle on his father's farm represented steaks and hamburgers and roasts, and at a certain point he knew to consider how the internal organs might be ground into hot dogs and liver and sausage casings. The cows would go to slaughter—at anywhere from $700 to $1,000 for a fattened-out steer—and the hides would be ripped off by these huge machines, but it wasn't until September 26, 1998, seventh inning, second to last game of the season, one on, two outs, when McGwire sent his 68th and, for the time being, ultimate home run of the season into Wiseman's black Rawlings glove that he made the connection. It was, he doesn't mind saying, a pretty nice grab.

    At the Costa Rica plant, a thin coating of rubber cement is applied to the cushioned cork center, which is placed on a machine and wrapped with a tight winding of four-ply gray wool. The first wrap is topped by a three-ply tan wool, a three-ply gray wool, and finally a thin poly-cotton thread that essentially gives the ball its shape. That's four windings in all, and according to Rawlings promotion representative Aaron Boutwell, you could probably put the leather cover on the ball after the first three, but you wouldn't get a perfect round sphere the way you do with the cotton layer. After a while, it would look like one of those misshapen eggs from the game's early days.

    The four wool and cotton windings are all made with different colors, to allow for quick visual inspection. Even the cushioned cork center is put together with two different-colored rubber sections, one red and one black, to allow for the same kind of spot-check, and balls are sliced at statistically representative intervals to make sure they are being made properly. One of the things that gets to a guy like Boutwell, whose job it sometimes is to explain to school groups how baseballs are made, is the way people talk about the ball being "juiced," or wound too tight. When you think about it, which he is paid to do, you realize such claims don't make sense. Sure, if the ball is wound too tight, it's likely to travel a greater distance with the same impact, but what people don't realize is a too-tight winding means a corresponding difference in the amount of wool, which would change the weight and circumference of the ball. If you change one of the variables, it invariably changes another.

    Next, the precisely-wound ball is trimmed of excess tailings and rubbed with another thin coating of rubber cement before two cowhide covers are puzzled together to complete the sphere. The covers are then stitched, by hand, with waxed red thread. It takes 108 stitches, 2 needles, 88 inches of waxed red thread, and about five minutes for one person to complete the job.

    After the cover is sewn, the ball is placed in a rolling machine for about fifteen seconds to flatten the seams and ensure a uniform surface. For a time, Rawlings worked with several machines designed to eliminate the hand-stitching step of the process but could never replicate the human element needed to keep the stitches taut and level. To some, the inconsistencies in the handsewing process provide the essential difference between professional models and high school and college balls. In amateur ball, where aluminum bats offer a measurable advantage to the hitter, it's thought that the pitchers are better able to compete with raised, uneven seams. A raised-seam ball breaks bigger—and, therefore, better—which is why you'll sometimes see a great college pitcher with a killer curveball never make it to the big leagues. He'll do just fine with the seams to his advantage, but as soon as they're rolled and flattened, he loses his edge and his pitches wind up on the other side of the fence.

    The only difference between the major league balls and the National and American League balls are cosmetic: The colors of the waxed thread and the ink used in stamping. National League balls are stamped in black ink; American League balls, in blue. For All-Star games, two different colored threads are used, representing the colors of the host team, and stitched in an alternating pattern. World Series balls, in even years, are red; in odd years, blue.

    In all, the hard costs of cork, rubber, wool, poly-cotton thread, waxed thread, and leather run less than two dollars per ball. Labor brings up the cost by another dollar or so, and the company gets a lot of manpower for that extra buck: At least two dozen sets of hands touch the ball and its component parts in production. The hides alone are handled by about a dozen people before they are cut and shipped to Costa Rica. In Turrialba, there are four different loadings of yarn, onto four different machines, by four different people. There's one person to apply the glue to the pill, and another to apply the glue to the cover. There's someone to do the stitching, someone to take the ball onto the floor to be stamped, and someone to take it to the machine to be rolled. Then there are the folks who pack the ball and prepare it for shipping.

    The ball is complete when it leaves the Turrialba plant for Rawlings' warehouse in Springfield, but it's not ready for game use until it's rubbed with a pinch of mud, and not just any mud will do. Lena Blackburne's Baseball Rubbing Mud, the mysterious compound dredged from the shores of New Jersey's Pennsauken Creek, a tributary to the Delaware River, has been the "unofficial" rubbing mud of Major League Baseball for more than a half century, since journeyman infielder-turned-manager Blackburne stumbled across the mud on a fishing trip. The mud is the stuff of baseball legend. The precise location of the mud bank is a closely held secret. The mud is collected once a year, late at night, by the extended members of a single family working by flashlight, after which it's carted off in 55-gallon drums, processed, and dispatched to big league clubhouses in nondescript, one pound coffee cans donated by neighbors.

    The art and practice of mud rubbing dates to the 1920s, after Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman was killed by a wild pitch and umpires were directed to put fresh balls into play at regular intervals during the game. The problem with this rule, however, was that pitchers complained about the slick grip on the always-new baseballs. Then, as now, it takes a couple kicks in the dirt for the leather on a fresh ball to lose its slickness after being tanned. League officials decided that if the balls were rubbed with mud before each game it would dull the sheen from the leather and protect the players from any errant throws, especially in the wet weather that did in poor Chapman. At first, this was done with an on-the-fly solution of infield dirt and tobacco juice. It eventually fell to the umpires to rub down ten to twelve dozen balls before each game—a tedious task that soon became a kind of rite of passage for the ball boys and clubhouse assistants who've taken on the umpire's job in exchange for tips.

    The main trick is to get the slickness off the ball without taking the whiteness with it. The side trick is to work quickly because it's grunt work. Kurt Schlogl, the assistant equipment manager for the St. Louis Cardinals who helped rub the record-territory baseballs marked by league officials and pitched to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa down the stretch, tells how it's not as easy as it sounds, this rubbing business. Either the balls are too light or too dark, or the surface comes out splotchy or uneven. Nowadays, the umps are as concerned with how a ball looks on television as how it feels in their hands.

    Blackburne's mud is said to contain just the right amounts of silt and sand and is relatively free of gravel. Several companies have analyzed the reddish brown compound and developed their own versions for commercial use, but the umpires stand behind the Blackburne stuff. That is, they stand behind it when and where they can get their hands in a coffee can full. In the low minors, when and where they cannot, umpires must sometimes make do, and National League umpire Richard Rieker reports that when he was in the bushes he would go out to the parking lot before each game and rub up game balls with the dirt alongside his car. This was especially convenient for some umpires in that they could sit in their cars and listen to the radio as they did the work, if they were so inclined. Rieker, who was behind the plate when McGwire hit his 70th home run of the 1998 season, can't tell you how many times he cut up his hands before a minor league game. It's hard to believe all the broken glass they've got in some of those parking lots.

    Finally, the baseball is ready to be put into play. And yet for all of the labor and hard material costs, for all the testing and inspecting, for all the planning and rubbing, each individual ball has a surprisingly short life span: six pitches. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but that's basically it. Three to four weeks to turn a hide into a cut cover, one to two months to fully assemble a ball from its component parts, all those busy hands being paid by the piece, and the ball's job is done after just a couple minutes.

    The official rules of baseball, article 3.01 (d), require only "one dozen regulation reserve balls to be immediately available for use if required," although standard practice calls for ten times that amount. Of course, the law of averages being what they are, and baseball being the game of statistical probability that it is, it's entirely possible that one dozen reserve balls might someday be enough, in some game, somewhere, if the ball never leaves the field of play. It's possible, but not likely. There is one modern-era game on the books—an August 4, 1908 contest between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Brooklyn Superbas—in which a full nine innings were played with only one game ball, but for the most part, it's up and out and on to the next one.

    One million baseballs per season.

    Ten dozen balls per game.

    Seven dozen balls per hide—or, a little more than one cow per game.

    Six pitches per ball.

    Rawlings' Boutwell helps to put the effort into perspective. The folks at Rawlings, he says, they're fans just like anyone else. They go to the games and people ask them who they're rooting for, and they say they're rooting for the ball. For them, it's a no-lose situation. The ball always has a good game. It's the cow who's not having one of her better days.


    The caretaking of the marked McGwire and Sosa balls was a constant worry to a detail-oriented guy like Ruben Puente. Don't misunderstand him, he was always thinking clearly, but the mistakes he usually caught on second check were somehow slipping by to a third. One near gaffe stood out. Sosás 65th was a big fly to center that landed in the "batter's eye" in Milwaukee County Stadium—the closed-off section of seats that were kept empty to leave a solid backdrop for the hitters. It bounced back onto the field and was retrieved by Brewers center fielder Marquis Grissom, who returned it to the umpire. The ball made its way to Puente in the middle of such postgame confusion that he sent a message to Sosa informing him that the ball was safe and that he would give it to him the next day. The Cubs were headed to Houston that night, and Puente was due to make the trip as well, so he figured he would save Sosa the trouble of traveling with the ball.

    The next night was equally chaotic, and this time Sosa sent a message to Puente to hold onto the ball for another day. When Puente left the Astrodome, however, something caught his attention. There was a small crowd gathered around the players' entrance, jockeying for autographs, and Puente noticed a boy at the back of the scrum, wanting to be let in. It was an ordinary, orderly pack of fans, and the smaller kids were always being pushed to the back, but something struck Puente about this one little boy. He was about eight years old, and he seemed to Puente about the happiest kid on the planet. He didn't care that he was being muscled out of position for an autograph. He was just glad to be out at the ballpark.

    Puente couldn't say what possessed him, but he remembered he had an extra ball in his briefcase. It wasn't a game ball, but it was an official ball, and he pulled his car over to where the crowd had formed and motioned for the kid. He reached into his briefcase for the ball and held it out to him. "Here, son," he said to the kid. "I want you to have this. It's from Major League Baseball."

    Just then, Puente thought to give the ball a final once-over before handing it to the boy. He looked down, and lost a breath. It was Sosa's baseball! He'd reached inside his briefcase and picked out the wrong ball, so he kicked himself over what nearly happened and reached back in for the unmarked ball. And do you know what? It might as well have been the Sosa ball, from the way the kid started smiling and hollering and going ballistic. Puente made sure to tell him it was just an ordinary baseball, but the kid didn't care. It was a brand-new official baseball, and it was the greatest thing in the world.

    For Puente, it turned out to be one of those priceless, what-the-game-is-all-about kind of moments, and yet when he leaned back into his car he was shaken. He was with three RSAs, and one of them noticed he was a little pale. He explained to his colleagues how he'd almost given away Sosa's ball by mistake, and the three men had a good laugh.

    "Ruben," one of them said, "you're probably the only guy in the world, if you had given it to him, you could just go back to your hotel room and make another. No one would ever know."

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Table of Contents

1 Pregame
2 Infrared, White, and Blue
3 Let's Make a Deal
4 A Pretty Good Day in the Life of a Research Scientist
5 Opening Bids
6 A Still Reasonably Good but Nevertheless Troubling Day in the Life of a Research Scientist
7 Greater Fools and Other Theories
8 A Somewhat Better Day in the Life of a Research Scientist
9 Promises, Promises
10 Perhaps the Best Day of All in the Life of a Research Scientist
11 Postgame
Acknowledgments
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