Baseball's expanding issue

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

NAPLES, Fla. – Since there was no time for a real experiment, this took some improvisation.

Less than a mile from the site of Major League Baseball's general managers' meetings, in a strip mall on a state route pocked with them, Chad Sapp welcomes customers into Rubio Cigars. He's the manager here, he's got a fine selection inside his humidor, which is all well and good. But, uh, I was kind of hoping to use it for something else.

"I've had a few people ask me about storing ammo," Sapp said. "You want to put a baseball in it?"

Well, yeah. The Colorado Rockies have done it for five years now, and the effects have been so dramatic, MLB is now collecting data on how the other 29 teams store their balls. The subject was the topic du jour as the GMs' meetings ended Thursday, too, and should baseball find a huge disparity in the playability of balls, it could, conceivably, turn to humidors to ensure uniformity across the game.

Only I didn't have a week or more to store it like the Rockies do. I had an hour to see whether it would expand. (Sorry, Mr. Kirian. Guess that whole chapter on the scientific method in eighth grade didn't stick.)

Amid hundreds of cigars sat the baseball orphan, cowhide wrapped around wool yarn wrapped around a core, officially approved by MLB. It weighed somewhere between 5 and 5 1/4 ounces, and it was somewhere between 9 and 9 1/4 inches around.

Colorado dreamt up the humidor because it was afraid Denver's altitude was sucking all of the moisture out of the balls, making them lighter and harder. Since opening in 1995, Coors Field was where slumping offenses went to get their jollies. Pitchers had difficulty gripping the balls, breaking pitches hung in the strike zone and batted balls were launched, not hit.

Legend, apocryphal though it may be, has it that Tony Cowell, the Coors Field electrician, noticed during a November 2001 hunting trip that his leather boots shrunk during the summer and figured the same thing might be happening to the balls. In the offseason, he built a 9-foot-by-9-foot room with four metallic shelves that hold up to 500 dozen balls. The humidity, set to the 40 percent used in the Missouri facility where Rawlings stores the balls imported from Costa Rica, was significantly higher than Denver's 10 percent relative humidity.

Then a funny thing happened. Runs per game dropped by more than a run, from 13.40 in 2001 to 12.21 in '02. Then to 11.94 the next year. An uptick in '04 notwithstanding, they were back down to 11.07 in 2005 and 10.72 this year. Home runs per game dropped every season, from 3.31 in 2001 to 2.07 this year.

Even still, the Rockies are sensitive about the subject. First, after The Denver Post reported on the humidor, baseball slapped the Rockies on the wrist for building it without permission. And they want to credit improved pitching and defense, which would be fine if the numbers weren't so unimpeachable.

Remember, this was a stadium that in 1996 averaged more than 15 runs per game, and one that three years later saw more than 300 home runs in 81 games. So different is the game at Coors Field these days that a buck wild September this year in which teams combined for nearly 17 runs per game and more than three home runs stirred conspiracy theories that the Rockies had stopped using humidor balls to pump up their September call-ups' numbers.

"There's no doubt it makes a huge difference," said Jerry DiPoto, a Rockies pitcher from 1997-2000 and member of the team's front office before leaving to become the Arizona Diamondbacks' director of player personnel. "It's changed the game there a lot, and I think it's changed the game for the better. It's a 100 percent improvement over what it was. It gives the Rockies a chance to build a competitive ballclub at a place where, at one time, I don't think that was necessarily the case."

Pre-humidor at Coors, the best earned-run average from a Rockies starting pitcher had been Kevin Ritz's 4.21 in 1995. Since then, Joe Kennedy has posted a 3.66, and last season, Jason Jennings, Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook were all 4.23 or better.

At the same time, singles hitters no longer swing for the fences and pitchers don't complain about the grip on the ball. Remember when Todd Jones admitted during the World Series that he had used pine tar? Only in Colorado, he said, and only because the poor grip made breaking balls almost non-entities.

"It was harder to throw strikes when you got on the road," DiPoto said, "because all of a sudden the ball was moving, and you didn't know how to control it."

All those years baseball was accused of juicing the ball, and here are the Rockies unjuicing – and finding success. Whether other teams follow suit, Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd said, "is really up to each individual club."

For now.

At the end of the season, MLB started collecting teams' storage information, as it has done weekly with Colorado since its installation of the humidor. Were baseball to find large discrepancies, perhaps only then would it standardize the humidity levels at which teams keep the balls.

"We don't want to create additional work or expense for teams," said Joe Garagiola Jr., MLB's VP of operations. "If what teams are doing now is appropriate and handles the baseballs in a way where they're at all times within the specs and ready for play, that's fine. I don't think we want to go out armed with solutions in search of problems that don't exist."

And the likelihood of MLB affirming a problem is slim. The margin between a good ball and one that's just off is ounces, something the human hand can barely feel. Perhaps it was just in my head, then, when I went back into the humidor, snagged the ball from its shelf and thought it might be a smidgen heavier.

"That's what happens," Sapp said, "when it's 70 and 70."

What's 70 and 70?

"Seventy degrees," Sapp said, "and 70 percent humidity."

Wait.

So … oh, no.

Rockies humidor: 40 percent.

My humidor: 70 percent.

The experiment: ruined.

Maybe I should've listened in science class after all.