SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The man who discovered the gyroball wanted to clear up something. The pitch, contrary to its legend that might as well have been cooked up with water from Loch Ness, does not dart 4 feet or dip 2 feet or do the Macarena before it reaches home plate.
The gyroball, Kazushi Tezuka said, really shouldn't move at all.
Hearing this was like hearing Santa Claus doesn't exist. I had started my search for the gyroball nearly a year ago, when Daisuke Matsuzaka was introducing himself to the United States for the first time during the World Baseball Classic. Message boards postulated that he threw this mysterious pitch by using double-spin mechanics, which sounded more like car technology. The pitch was supposed to revolutionize baseball, and when I asked Matsuzaka whether he threw it, he said that he had accidentally and that he wanted to learn it. By the time the Boston Red Sox emptied a Brinks truck to sign Matsuzaka, the gyroball was a full-blown phenomenon.
Turns out everything we thought was wrong.
Well, almost everything.
Now I can say, without question, the gyroball is no myth.
What exactly the gyroball is, however, I'm still not sure.
Spending two hours with Tezuka at Scottsdale Stadium, watching a DVD of gyroball highlights he had compiled, showing that DVD to Barry Bonds to get his take, learning how the baseball community started to associate Matsuzaka with the pitch, being told Pedro Martinez might have thrown it, seeing the gyroball's godfather throw it and then trying to whirl it myself – all of the elements, it would seem, to a crash course of Gyro 101 – couldn't definitively answer that question.
Early in the afternoon, Tezuka arrived with Masa Niwa, a journalist and his interpreter for the day, ready to explain the pitch. He had flown here from Tokushima Prefecture not just to meet with Texas Rangers reliever Akinori Otsuka – with whom he works as a performance coach, though Otsuka does not throw the gyroball – but, hopefully, to correct the fables of the gyroball.
Like that the pitch was discovered in a laboratory. Tezuka, 44, actually recognized the possibility of the pitch in 1995, when he found an American toy in a Japanese store. It is called the X-Zylo Ultra, and its use of a gyroscope – a device that uses inertia to balance itself – allows it to fly more than 500 feet when thrown. Tezuka tried to apply the principles of the X-Zylo to throwing a baseball and brought the idea to Dr. Ryutaro Himeno, a respected scientist at the Japanese lab RIKEN, who put together computerized models based on Tezuka's theory that gyro spin would subject a baseball to less resistance.
The result was the first image on the DVD. The ball, spinning in slow motion, was orange, green and blue, and it looked like an image Wavy Gravy would've stared at for days.
From there it cut to live video of high school students throwing the pitch, then of a professional submariner named Shunsuke Watanabe. He threw a two-seam gyroball, Tezuka explained, aligning his index and middle fingers along the ball's seams. There is also a four-seam gyroball, with the fingers across the seams, both pitches gripped like the two traditional fastballs. The best way to throw the gyroball is sidearm, Tezuka said, because the mechanics – pulling down on the ball's side, like throwing a football, to create a sideways spin – are more natural.
"That's a changeup," I said.
It sure looked like one, jamming the hitter as he mustered a feeble swing. I paused the video and rewound, just to make sure, and stopped again to assert that the two-seam gyroball was nothing more than a changeup.
Tezuka didn't respond.
He hit play on the video again and moved to the next batter.
"It looked like a cut fastball a little bit," I said. "It's like Mariano Rivera."
"No," Tezuka said. "That means it moves."
He hit play once more. Next batter.
"That's a slider," I said, "like Jeff Nelson's."
Tezuka conceded that if the gyroball is anything, it's closest to a slider – and that, he said, is what makes it so special.
If thrown correctly, Tezuka said, the two-seam gyroball should look to a batter like a slider and act like a fastball. That is why, as described in the title of the book he and Himeno wrote, it is a "miracle pitch."
Bonds was not convinced. In a highlight later on the DVD of Major League Baseball's 2000 tour to Japan, Bonds batted against Tetsuro Kawajiri. He looked at the video of him lunging for a pitch that seemed to have broken backdoor over the outside corner.
"That's a sidearm slider," Bonds said.
I asked whether it was a gyroball.
"I don't know what that is," he said.
It was supposed to be the first new pitch since Bruce Sutter popularized the split-fingered fastball … which itself was nothing more than a new grip, providing a different break, on the already-used forkball. The novelty of the gyroball caught on in the U.S. as it had in Japan. Kids posted videos of themselves on YouTube trying to throw the gyroball. The double-spin mechanics Tezuka teaches – rotating the hips and shoulder in sync to prevent injuries – became the key to unleashing the nastiest breaking ball out there.
"Everyone," Tezuka said meekly, "kind of misunderstood."
The theory behind the gyroball is this: When a baseball spins sideways, like a bullet, it should cut down on the amount of resistance on its path to the plate. Without the same amount of air resistance as a regular fastball, which rotates backward, the four-seam gyroball should not experience the same slowdown and look as if it's exploding toward the plate.
A perfect gyroball should be straighter than the crease on a pair of slacks.
"It doesn't move," Tezuka said. "It doesn't move at all."
Turns out all the videos claiming to capture Matsuzaka's gyroball were instead of his slider, a pitch that has confused gyrophiles since 1999. A television station in Japan tried to understand the dominance of Matsuzaka's slider and noticed he pronated his wrist – or let it turn outward, like a screwball, except releasing the ball off the inside of his fingers rather than the outside – as Tezuka teaches practitioners of the gyroball.
The station urged Tezuka to confirm that Matsuzaka regularly threw the gyroball. He wouldn't. The connection was there, though, and has stuck for almost a decade.
When Matsuzaka admitted last year that he had tried throwing it, he wasn't lying. Tomoki Hoshino, himself a gyroballer and a former Seibu Lions teammate of Matsuzaka, told Tezuka that Matsuzaka would try to throw the pitch while messing around.
Asked about it at his spring-training press conference, Matsuzaka played coy: "Should I say, 'I have that ball'? Or I could say, 'Which particular ball are you referring to?' Or, 'Which ball are you calling a gyroball?' "
And then he said, "If I have the chance, I will pitch that ball," which added even more mystery.
"It's part of the fun of baseball," said Robert Adair, who wrote "The Physics of Baseball." "These hooey things and stuff like that. It may be of some psychological use."
Adair, who in the late 1980s was appointed by Bart Giamatti as "physicist to the National League," said that the amount of air resistance a ball faces "doesn't make any difference" to the speed at which it travels. Like so many others, he sees the gyroball as nothing more than a great story.
"No," Tezuka said. "I just want people to understand what the gyro is."
Tezuka stepped on the mound at Scottsdale Stadium. He had taken off his pullover to reveal a slight 5-foot-7 frame. He wore black shorts, a tan hat, sunglasses and a look of excitement, because he was holding two baseballs, one colored half-red, the other half-black, and he was about to show off his discovery.
I stood behind the empty batting cage to get a better look. Tezuka adjusted his fingers to the correct spots on the four-seam black ball, which he sells for about $25 a set back in Japan. If he threw a gyroball, the only thing I would see was black, because that was the half of the ball that was supposed to spin toward the plate.
Black it was, with small flickers of white, because the axis wasn't perfect. Same went for the red two-seam gyroball. Almost all color.
"That's the gyroball," he said, and it was somewhat anticlimactic, the game's purported great revolution looking in actuality like nothing more than a fastball.
Still, it was an explanation, something substantive, and something, too, that I could try. Tezuka has been teaching baseball for 15 years and has 1,300 students, from children to players in Nippon Professional Baseball. He gave me a short explanation, jogged behind the cage and told me to fire. On my fourth pitch, he jumped.
"Yes!" he said after I tossed the four-seamer. "You threw the perfect gyroball."
Hmm. That was easy. Instead of throwing over the top, I torqued my wrist slightly so the ball would spin sideways. It felt like a fastball, looked like a fastball and moved like a fastball.
Apparently, it was a gyroball.
Tezuka walked over to congratulate me. He jokingly patted my left leg up and down as if to check me for foreign objects. While the admiration was nice, I told Tezuka I was convinced I'd thrown a fastball.
Pedro Martinez thought he was throwing fastballs during his prime as well, Tezuka explained. He said slow-motion analysis shows Martinez with the correct motion, arm action, grip and spin for a four-seam gyroball.
"He probably didn't even know," Tezuka said.
And that would seem the essence of the gyroball: We don't know. We don't know if it's simply a theory that plays out in a computer and not in real life. We don't know if it's a new kind of grip, like the first time someone grabbed a baseball holding the OK sign and created the circle changeup. We don't know if it's an arm motion that has been used by another player and never given a label. We don't know if it's a fastball or a cutter or a changeup or a slider.
There is one thing I do know: It's something, all right.