Rocket shots abate at Lions Park launching pad

Kenn Oliver
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Homers abounded earlier this season after new ball was introduced, but rate has since slowed considerably

For 17 games earlier this season, long-time Molson St. John’s Senior Men’s Softball League secretary-treasurer and stats guru Bill Barron says any player’s grandmother could have hit a home run at Lions Park.

Lower Path Bar & Grill lefthander Donny King prepares to unleash a pitch during a recent Molson St. John's senior softball game against the Kelly's Pub Bulldogs at Lions Park.

During the stretch, the senior league began using a supply of the new yellow Optic K-Master softball, identical in all ways — diameter, weight, stitches, core and covering — to its predecessor, the White K-Master, save for its colour.

The new balls were put into play to reflect Softball Canada’s introduction of the optic ball for use in all its national championships this summer.

But that first batch of balls put into play on June 22 and used in the St. John’s Day tournament reacted far differently than the white ones. Through the tournament and four regular-season games, 42 home runs here hit. Prior to that, the nine regular-season games in which the white ball was used had yielded just 13 round trippers.

“All the ball has to do is hit the bat,” says Barron. “They were putting them in the tennis courts for fun.”

Softball Newfoundland and Labrador (SNL) president Ross Crocker was witness to some of the games using the suspect balls.

“I saw games where balls were hit — line drives six feet off the ground — off the centrefield wall. There were pop-ups that went over the netting in centre. That’s 250 feet (out) and a 30- to 40-foot net, for sure. And they were putting them on the (Lions) chalet and (Greenbelt Tennis Club) bubble.”

Player opinion on the ball is mixed, but like the Spalding rocket balls, as they were dubbed, used in the 1983 season, batters love them.

Veteran hurler Harold Kelly, who admits to preferring the look of the old white balls, isn’t ready to pass judgement on the Optic ball, but can’t dispute the startling home run stats.

“There were a lot of home runs, even check-swing home runs. You question it when you see a ball come off a bat that looks like a fly ball, and it ends up out of the park,” says Kelly.

Initially, Barron went back to his supplier (SportsCraft), figuring the softball’s maker, Worth, had mistakenly shipped out a different model of optic balls with a poly-x core, said to give more pop on contact.

He determined they were the right balls, but still didn’t want to take any chances by putting any from the original batch back into play. Instead, he received a small supply of the exact same ball from SNL. Once put into play — except for one night where an suspect optic was mixed up with a new one — the home-run rate dropped significantly, with 25 dingers in 22 games.

“All the ball has to do is hit the bat,” said Bill Barron

Despite receiving confirmation from Worth that the correct balls were shipped, Barron is convinced it was simply a bad batch.

He’s even gone so far as to cut two balls in half — one white ball and one optic — to examine their core and has since had player Ryan Boland bring them to Memorial University to have the material tested.

The increase in homers is just part of the concern surrounding the suspect balls.

Jason Hill, one of the province’s  top pitchers, says the balls feel slicker than the old white K-masters.

“I think the skin has a different texture. On the dropballs, you’re hitting the dirt; on the riseball, you can’t get under them,” insists Hill.

Another issue surrounds the speed at which the ball leaves the bat. Given the short distance from mound and home plate, some players have suggested the ball presents a safety concern.

“There’s safety issues no matter what ball you’re playing with,” says Kelly. “But if it’s travelling off the bat a little faster, if in fact it is, it creates more a safety issue.”

Regardless what kind of ball softball pitchers are chucking to hitters, there’s always an element of danger, according to veteran hurler Donny King.

“You’re bound to get a comebacker. It’s part of the game,” King said. “No matter what we use, you have to be prepared that when it comes back to you it’s coming back hard if it’s been hit on the button.

“The batters are seeing the ball better, so we have to adjust as pitchers and make better pitches.”

On the upside, the new optic ball seems to have a longer lifespan than the white models.

Hill, King and Kelly say after a game or two, the white balls would lose their shape — becoming almost oval — and lose pop off the bat.

“So is it the combination of the old balls and new bats making these balls go to mush and get cracked up? And is that the reason we’re switching to the other ball,” inquires Kelly.

Regardless of personal opinion on the optic balls, they are the balls being used at national.

“We have to convert,” says King, “or we’ll be at a disadvantage.”

“The game’s changing,” said Hill, “so we have to change with it.”

Organizations: Softball Canada, Tennis Club

Geographic location: Lions Park, Newfoundland and Labrador, Greenbelt

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