Factory reveals secrets of making a baseball

His fingers flying over a half-sewn ball in a mass of red and blue stitching and snow-white leather, Geovani Hernandez said all the home runs being hit this season are having a noticeable effect on his work.

"It does seem like they need a lot more baseballs," said the 19-year-old, who can hand-stitch 58 in a 10-hour day. "They are really encouraging us to stay later and make more balls recently, maybe because of all the home runs using up balls."

Hernandez, 19, is just one of 500-plus sewers whose rows of work tables fill a floor longer than a football field at the Rawlings factory where all of the baseballs for the major and minor leagues are made.

Since age 13, he has confronted his one-piece workbench -- a metal stool attached to a small, white tray mounted with a special plastic vice to hold the ball in place. To his right hangs a clear plastic bag full of the finished balls and the coverless, stringy shells that he will soon turn into baseballs.

"I think it's harder to hit a home run than it is to sew one of these," Hernandez admitted, with the toughest part getting the pointless needle through the first of 108 specially cut grooves.

"But I bet I know the balls they use in the big leagues better than any player."

None of the employees making a base salary of about $1.10 an hour here have heard of the theory that St. Louis-based Rawlings may be producing baseballs with tighter centres to make crowd-pleasing home runs more common.

No one has heard the rumours that balls are sewn by machines that could be re-calibrated to add a bit more oomph.

No one knows what a juiced baseball is, and they certainly wouldn't know how to make one.

But then again, neither would Rawlings president Howard Keene.

"This place would literally have to shut down for weeks until we figured out how to make balls that were easier to hit over the fence," Keene said. "Even if baseball asked us to change something, we'd have to look at each step of our process to figure out how we could accomplish it."

A van full of baseball executives, headed by executive vice-president Sandy Alderson, visited the factory Monday to see how the baseballs are made. He said he was "confident there is no difference in the balls being made here now and those being made here at the start of last season."

The process begins with hard-rubber ball, or "pill," which from afar looks a bulb that could one day sprout an exotic flower. The pills, shipped here from a rubber plant in Alabama, have not changed as long as baseballs have been made for pro games, said plant manager Douglas Kralik.

An old machine once used by Spalding before Rawlings became the majors' official supplier in 1977 checks each pill, which has the bounce of a well-used golf ball, to ensure it meets compliance.

After a quick dip in a rubber-cement compressor, the pill is run through three machines that wrap it with coarse black, lighter grey and smooth white yarn. The ball, now known as a "centre," is tested every step of the way to ensure the approved amount of each kind of yarn is attached.

The centres go to Hernandez and hundreds like him who spend their days frantically forcing a silver needle just slightly thicker than a pencil lead through the holes in a precut leather cover.

After a machine turns an 2.4-metre-long sheet of white cowhide into a neat pile of rounded leather covers, workers choose two that are as identical as possible. The two partnered covers will eventually become each half of a baseball's exterior.

Some hides are smoother than others, said Evelyn Pereas, one of those in charge of the cover-sorting, so the trick is to match two smooth covers, or two rough ones.

The covers then go to the damping room, where workers use rubber bands to press the covers together with moist towels in a very unscientific process that makes them more malleable.

Next, after centre and cover are sewn, the ball is put through a circular compression machine to relax the stitches, which tend to stick up.

After spending the night in an air-conditioned room, the balls are hand-cleaned and stamped with the autograph of commissioner Bud Selig. If inspectors see an exterior flaw, the balls are boxed for sale rather than sent to major league parks.

The factory in this working-class town of 20,000 people produces about 36,000 pro balls a day. They go to fill the 1.2 million balls per month ordered by major league baseball. The cost per ball to Rawlings: about $4.

And though all balls head through a quality-control centre in Missouri, the factory uses an 85 mph pitching machine and a wooden backstop to see how lively they are when pounded by the meatiest part of a slugger's bat.

Baseball requires the balls to rebound at between 51 and 57 per cent of the speed they were travelling when they made contact with the wood. There have been some balls with quite a bit more pep, said Diane Kralik, who heads the factory's quality-control division, but they are never allowed to leave the testing room.

"I guess if any of these balls were juiced, we'd find out," she said, smiling.

Douglas Kralik said the balls are so strong they could probably withstand an entire game's worth of punishment.

The factory, which is ringed by barbed-wired fences and guarded 24 hours a day, has seen its security tightened since Rawlings began receiving hundreds of calls and letters from reporters and fans asking about juiced baseballs, Kralik said.

"About the only ones who don't want to tour this place are the players, who prefer to just get it wrong and say the balls are stitched by machine," said Kralik, adding that New York Yankees ace Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez is the only active player to take a tour since the factory opened in 1989. "That really makes me mad because so much work goes into what we do here

By Will Weissert