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Jim Allen

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NPB gets on ball

by Jim Allen (Apr 9, 2011)

It has been a long time coming, but Nippon Professional Baseball's 12 teams will all be using the same ball this season.

In the past, teams had been allowed to use balls from as many as three different manufacturers. The situation was confusing. Since most clubs used Mizuno balls, teams using other makers' balls could force opposing pitchers to use unfamiliar equipment.

A switch in balls can radically affect the way parks play, something fans are sure to notice this summer.

Last season for example, both the Hanshin Tigers and Hiroshima Carp began using Mizuno. At Koshien Stadium, the frequency of home runs per inning increased by 29.5 percent.* At Mazda Stadium, longballs were 48.5 percent more common.

Not all of that difference should be attributed to a change in equipment. Balls travel better in warm, moist air and last summer was unusually hot and humid.

Although NPB's new ball is made by Mizuno, it is nothing like the company's old strato-sphere that sent home run totals soaring a decade ago.

"Our tests indicate a ball struck with the same force this year will travel one to two meters less than balls previously used," NPB official Katsuhiko Nakamura told The Daily Yomiuri in January.

The more energy a ball retains from its impact with the bat, the livelier it is and the farther it will travel. According to Nakamura, this year's standard ball will be at the very bottom of the allowable range.

Numbers from preseason games suggest fans are in for many games with few or no home runs. In 51 official preseason games before the March 11 earthquake turned the schedule on its head, home runs were down by 33 percent compared to the same period a year ago.

For years, voices within NPB had called for a standard ball, but teams resisted out of concern for the smaller manufacturers that needed the lifeline of large orders from pro teams.

But with smaller firms abandoning the market in the past two years, Nakamura said this season represented a golden opportunity to consolidate.

"The majority of teams wanted to use a standard ball," he said.

"Last year, we had a peculiar situation, particularly in interleague play. Prior to the start of each series, the visiting team would get some sample balls to practice with, so the pitchers they expected to use could try them out.

"The whole situation would look pretty silly from someone in another country."

The last time the balls became news was 2004. That summer, while players and fans protested NPB's contraction plans, the punchless Chunichi Dragons announced they were switching away from Mizuno. The team said it made no sense to throw heavy-hitting opponents a ball that carried further, and the Dragons went on to win the Central League pennant.

In a season of fan discontent, talk that Mizuno's rabbit balls were making a mockery of the game by creating cheap home runs did not help boost the game's or the company's image.

Mizuno responded to the bad press by offering teams a "less-lively" ball for the 2005 season.

*Although the Tigers used Mizuno balls for the first time last season, they continued to use balls from two other makers, as well. The team turned down a Daily Yomiuri request for information about the specific games in which each ball was used.


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