Commentary

Honesty in Nippon Baseball League

Juiced balls in the major leagues would solve a lot of problems. So would honesty.

Originally Published: June 19, 2013
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

Nippon Professional Baseball league ballAP Photo/KyodoNippon Professional Baseball commissioner Ryozo Kato showing off a baseball in 2010. But on June 13, 2013, the NPB admitted that a new ball has been in play this year, in which there has been a noticeable power surge.

NEW YORK -- Back in the 1987 and 2000 baseball seasons, when the ball was flying out of major league baseball stadiums at notable rates and players who were once thrilled to just bounce balls to the warning track suddenly saw career-best spikes in their home run totals -- Wade Boggs really hit 24 dingers? In what universe? -- a pretty robust resistance movement rose up against the Conspiracy Theorists.

Political pundit George Will's bow tie went spinning like a helicopter rotor blade at the mere suggestion that something might be happening on the emerald chessboard that he wasn't aware of. He shot the rumors down. Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford wrote two mocking takedowns 13 years apart of suspicions the ball was juiced 13 years apart. So did many others.

There were sneering blueprints thrown out about how high up such a plot would have to go, and a lot of elaborate reasons conjured up for why it couldn't happen -- except, um, it officially just did. Over in Japan's Nippon Baseball League. Where commissioner Ryozo Kato is so far resisting calls to resign. "I only read one article about it," Yankees manager Brian Cashman said Tuesday. "Seems like some black ops were going on."

But not only in Japan.

The shock wasn't necessarily that NBL officials secretly resorted to juicing the ball in what they now admit was a quest to make the games more "interesting."

The stunner was they abandoned months of denials and actually admitted they lied.

American baseball has rarely been so inclined. Quite the opposite. Oscar Wilde's line "I can resist all things except temptation" applies. The combination of mankind's fascination with the home run and mankind's refusal to admit some guys will do anything to get more of them is so entrenched, it's actually led to a sort of Amsterdam theory of baseball governance:

Why not just make everything legal?

(In such a world, mending Angels pitcher Ryan Madson would be a candidate to replace Bud Selig as commissioner after his daydreaming last week about being allowed to legally use HGH to hasten his recovery from arm surgery.)

But if you want to be really diabolical, why not argue this instead: Couldn't juicing the ball be the answer to our perennial PED scandals here? Instead of seeing humans continue to pump themselves full of steroids to hit more home runs, and despairing the sport will be forever stuck with an unlevel playing field, why not juice the balls? Juice, juice, juice away!

It'd be hard not to love a game where even Smurf-sized Dustin Pedroia has a shot every year to hit 40 home runs. What sweet vengeance for all those "Are you the bat boy?" jokes he heard coming up. And Selig could make himself useful before he retires and pass an Asterisk Rule: A-Rod and other past cheaters get a dead ball thrown in when they come up to hit. Just because.

It's silly, right?

The lesson of the Japan scandal is not that it pays to tell the truth.

It's a reminder that if you don't, hiding it will be as hard to deny as a bad toupee.

Through last Wednesday, home runs were up 60 percent over last season in the Nippon Baseball League. Tony Blanco hit 14 home runs in April alone, a league record. One after another, players and managers insisted the ball was different. "Professional ballplayers can easily tell whether the ball has been livened or not when they hit the ball," Shinya Miyamoto, an infielder with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, told Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Might it have anything to do with the NBL's declining attendance in the past decade, and the league's fears that the slide would continue as more stars like Yu Darvish keep streaming to the U.S.?

No, no. NPB officials kept denying it -- until they didn't. Last Tuesday, the league finally admitted it had asked Mizuno to tinker with the ball to make it fly farther.

[+] EnlargeMatt Nokes, Pat Sheridan
AP Photo/Jim MoneMatt Nokes, left, with Pat Sheridan during the 1987 American League Championship Series. Nokes hit 32 home runs that year.
The same confront-and-deny pattern happened during the suspected rabbit ball years here, especially in '87 before the steroid era suspicions were beginning to be proved. I was working in Detroit then, and I remember the Tigers' Hall of Fame-bound manager Sparky Anderson saying baseball was using a "nitro" ball because of the way it was jumping out. Matt Nokes -- Matt Nokes! -- hit 32 homers for Detroit. Mike Pagliarulo hit 32 for the Yankees, then never topped 15 again. Ivan Calderon (28) hit one more than Dave Winfield.

Hysterical as it seems now, one guy who didn't generate suspicions was A's rookie Mark McGwire, who hit a league-best 49 home runs. That was written off to the fact he was solid 6-foot-5 kid who was presumably just growing into his Bunyanesque strength (this though he was nothing close to as massive as he was about to become).

Eventually, pitcher Billy Koch was so fed up he cut open a ball to inspect what was inside.

All told, 28 hitters had at least 30 home runs in 1987. Then there were only five who topped 30 in 1988.

That's not a red herring. That's a red flag.

Proven and unproven cover-ups have gone on in American baseball over the years. After reports that Biogenesis founder Tony Bosch might have evidence to link Ryan Braun to PEDs, Indians manager Terry Francona was acknowledging those cover-ups when he said, "I think baseball, as an industry, is paying for burying our heads in the sand some years ago."

Here anyway -- if not in Japan, where they finally 'fessed up -- some people prefer it that way.

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