Balls to the Wall

The vast majority of American men have nothing more in common with major-league baseball players than an occasional hangnail and the right to a jury trial. Most of us couldn't hit a beach ball thrown by an eight-year-old, much less Randy Johnson's heater, and whenever we execute the hit-and-run, there's always a police car looming in the rear-view mirror.

Still, American males -- and some of our like-minded sisters -- have an insatiable desire to tell baseball players where to stand in the batter's box, how to raise their children and, not infrequently, what to do with their bats when they strike out in the clutch. That may account for public interest in the present controversy over at Coors Field: Given our expertise in shrub-trimming and channel-changing, we non-players have all kinds of incontrovertible theories about those game baseballs being stored in a humidifier at the stadium -- allegedly so they won't shrink or fall below the game's five-ounce minimum-weight standard and thus become more susceptible to long, long flights of fancy. Last week, the people who call radio sports talk shows (the halfway houses are full of them) were burning up the phone lines with scientific discourse. The Colorado Rockies' home-run production had fallen off because these waterlogged Rawlings were no longer rabbit balls. Rockies pitching had suddenly improved because opposing hitters couldn't hit those sodden lumps of clay out of the infield. One caller insisted the whole thing was a plot by Osama bin Laden, abetted by the Iraqis.

Asked this week about the flap, which arose only because the Rockies had kept their 90-degree, 40-percent-humidity chamber a secret since the beginning of the season, several Rockies players got that faraway look baseball players always get when they're asked some especially moronic question about their bathing habits or their prowess at checkers. First baseman Todd Helton, who could hit a water-soaked beanbag out of Coors Field, called the controversy "ridiculous," and fellow slugger Larry Walker shrugged like a man who knows when the emperor is wearing no clothes. He shook his head and grinned, a gesture as eloquent as his home-run swing.

The source of suspicion, and the probable cause of an "inquiry" by the baseball powers that be, was this: In the first sixteen home games of the season, the Rockies and their opponents played something resembling "normal" baseball in a park that usually produces football scores and breeds home runs like dandelions. In one series of six home games, the Rox laid back-to-back three-game sweeps on Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and the club's new and improved pitching staff put up consecutive shutouts for the first time since Coors opened in 1995. Total scoring was down more than six runs per game.

Was this the result of a dead ball? Who knows? After looking around the so-called "environmental chamber" (think there was a spare Macanudo or two luxuriating in there next to all that cowhide?), baseball officials gave their stamp of approval to the Rockies' initiative. The commissioner's man, Sandy Alderson, went so far as to say that all major-league clubs would do well to ensure that their baseballs conform to spec, whether they play in bone-dry Phoenix or unbearably muggy Atlanta. Furthermore, San Francisco Giants owner Peter Magowan endorsed the mile-high humidor on the basis that it might make baseball at Coors Field more like...well, baseball.

As for theory, the current (thirteen-game) home stand that began last Monday has thus far produced no significant drop-off in home-run production at altitude. In the first three games with the Florida Marlins, the two clubs combined for nine dingers -- including a long-carrying opposite-field grand slam by Greg Norton that first appeared to have sacrifice fly written on it, and four homers by catcher Bobby Estalella, who evidently never took high school physics and thus didn't know how flagrantly he was violating the laws of the natural world. Last Thursday afternoon, the Rockies won 10-3 behind a pair of three-run homers, and even Saturday's 2-1 win by the Atlanta Braves featured a game-winning homer by Julio Franco.

Nonetheless, the talk-show callers and the bar-stool Einsteins continue to discuss the merits of damp balls versus dry, despite the fact that, aside from big-league baseball, one of the things we American men have virtually no personal knowledge of is physics. Oh, the occasional apple may fall on our heads, and we think we know why the lightbulb in the bathroom burned out, but bring up the fluid dynamics of airflow around spheres as determined by the Navier-Stokes Equation, and most of us would do well to immediately change the subject to something more familiar -- such as organic chemistry or Sanskrit poetry.

For the real story on the Rockies' humidor and its effects on the flight of the ball, we must turn once more to one Robert K. Adair, the Sterling Professor of Physics at Yale University and the author of The Physics of Baseball, a volume that should be held in the same esteem as The Baseball Encyclopedia and Moby Dick. Dr. Adair, you may recall, is the fellow who first explained to us poor, benighted fans why the fastball gets to the plate sooner in Denver than at sea level, why the curve breaks 25 percent less and why 300-foot line drives in the gap come to ground three-tenths of a second earlier. To wit: "The retarding force on a ball is proportional to the density of the air," and as far as ball spin is concerned, "if the resistive drag force varies only as the square of the velocity and if the Magnus force is only an imbalance in that resistance, which follows from the faster motion on one side of the ball through the air than the other, we should expect that the Magnus force would be proportional to spin frequency, proportional to the air velocity (or ball velocity) and proportional to the drag coefficient at the ball velocity."

Bobby Estalella couldn't have said it better.

Regarding the Rockies' humidor practices, Adair last week shook his head in the Larry Walker manner. The 40 percent humidity in the chamber, he says, serves to deaden the balls' flight somewhat, but the 90-degree heat in there more than counteracts that effect. As is the case in several activities, warm balls go farther than cold ones. You can look it up: On page 107 of the 1994 edition of the good doctor's book, he tells how his colleague, one R.C. Larsen, put a couple of baseballs in a deep freeze overnight and a couple more in a 175-degree oven. In the morning he tested the balls' coefficient of restitution -- a lovely baseball term, don't you think? -- and found the cold balls 10 percent deader than normal, the warm ones 13 percent livelier. Translation: Subtract or add 25 feet on a flyball that would ordinarily travel 375 feet.

So, if the Rockies really want to normalize the play at Coors Field, they'd do well not just to humidify, but to chill out Mr. Rawlings's famous product. In the meantime, they have other things to worry about, including staff ace Mike Hampton's dreary 2-5 start, Shawn Chacon's trip to the disabled list, and -- most telling of all -- a dramatic drop-off in Coors Field attendance. This isn't Miami, where just 5,600 fans wandered in the other day to watch the first-place Marlins, or lame-duck Montreal, where a scattering of 4,000 is commonplace. But the 28,651 who turned out last Tuesday was the smallest crowd in Coors Field history, followed the next night by just 27,898 (granted, the Avs' game seven against San Jose was also in progress). The Rockies' crowds are shrinking a lot faster than their balls, but if we wait a moment, the talk-show callers are sure to have a solution or three for that, too.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo