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Does Coors humidor help the Rockies?

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Tracy Ringolsby

Tracy Ringolsby is a Hall of Fame baseball writer. He is in his 37th year covering Major League Baseball, is a co-founder of Baseball America, and is in his fourth year as pregame and postgame analyst for Colorado Rockies games on Root Sports.

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In terms of great conspiracies, Humidorgate doesn’t have much of a heartbeat.

Oh, it became a headline during the weekend when the San Francisco Giants complained to Major League Baseball that there was a chance the Colorado Rockies could be sneaking non-humidor balls into play when visiting teams hit at Coors Field.

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To placate the Giants, Major League Baseball responded by ordering umpires to not let the bag that stores game balls out of their sight once it is removed from the humidor.

The Rockies privately find it amusing that the humidor has created an uproar. They figure if other teams are spending time worrying about the balls being switched between innings, that in itself is an advantage because the opposition isn’t focused on the game at hand.

The punch line to the weekend furor?

A prime media exhibit was a film clip of Tim Lincecum in the midst of his eight-inning, two-hit effort at Coors Field on Friday night throwing out a baseball he was given to use and didn’t like. The whole incident became a popular hit on the Internet. Lip readers claim after throwing the ball back to the home plate umpire, Lincecum uttered a expletive slam on the humidor and cheaters. Although Lincecum downplayed the incident on Saturday, he did say he got three or four balls that didn't feel like the others.

"It's just one of those things that's in the back of your mind,’’ Lincecum told reporters. "If it's happening or not, it doesn't really matter. But in a crucial game like that you err on the side of caution. … My emotions were probably a little more invested in that game," he said, "and whatever's in the back of my mind, it got verbalized.’’

The eyebrows are raised because the Rockies have such a great home-field advantage and don’t have a blue-ribbon resume, like, say, Atlanta. Ever hear anybody moan about Atlanta having an unfair edge at Turner Field?

Well, the Braves went into Tuesday with a .697 winning percentage at home compared with .432 on the road, a 265-point differential, which is an even bigger difference than the Rockies, who had a.658 winning percentage at home compared with .403 on the road, a 255-point differential.

The Rockies, however, have never won a division title. Their three postseason appearances since their inception in 1993 have been as a wild card. The Braves, meanwhile, ran off a professional sports record 14 consecutive first-place finishes.

Success on the field translates into credibility, which the Rockies have yet to create.

What the media had failed to report is that the new guidelines for overseeing the balls were put in place prior to Friday’s game, the one in which Lincecum pitched, a day earlier than the media reports.

The humidor was installed at Coors Field in 2002 to address concerns about the hitter-friendly atmosphere. It was also done to negate the lack of humidity drying out baseballs, which shrinks the leather, makes balls slick, and flattens the seams, thus adding to the difficulty for a pitcher to grip the ball.

Before each game, the ball bag is filled, initially taken to the umpires room and then carried by a teenage ball boy to the corner of the Rockies dugout closest to home plate. Whenever the home plate needed balls during the game, the ball boy would be signaled and would take a handful to the umpire.

The Giants alleged that when the visiting team was hitting, the ball boy could be taking the balls out of a second bag, which contained balls that were not stored in the humidor.

To eliminate the suspicion, Major League Baseball asked the Rockies to revise the process. Now, once the ball bag is delivered to the umpires room, the umpires are expected to carry it out to the dugout, and the second base umpire is to keep an eye on the bag throughout the game to make sure all game balls are taken out of that bag.

Accusations of espionage among teams is nothing new. Back in the days of the Metrodome, then-Texas manager Bobby Valentine was so convinced that the Twins would turn up the air conditioning for fans behind home plate when the Twins were hitting that he tied ribbons to the mesh behind home plate to watch how strongly the fans were blowing.

Earlier this year, the Rockies, themselves, created an issue over Philadelphia bullpen catcher Nick Billemeyer using binoculars to possibly steal signs from the Rockies catchers while they were hitting.

The Chicago White Sox were once accused to keeping balls in a freezer to give hitters an edge.

It is nice to know that now that the Giants don’t have Barry Bonds to sell tickets for them, they can focus on cleaning up suspected indiscretions in the game. And come to think of it, maybe they are so fired up over the idea that a team could switch balls to its advantage because of the Bonds experience.

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Is it possible that the Giants actually figured out the nuances of switching baseballs during the days of Bonds, who did show an abnormal ability to hit towering home runs at AT&T Park that is generally considered one of the most pitcher friendly ballparks in the game?

It would, after all, have been very easy to insert a chilled ball, which would travel farther, when the national spotlight was on Bonds because every time Bonds came to the plate there were specially marked baseballs that the umpires had to use. Of course, there may be other reasons Bonds had an advantage, although no steroid use has been proved.

To have doctored those balls and made sure that they were used at the proper time would have been less complicated than the convoluted theory suggested about Coors Field.

While the insertion of doctored balls into the game would have been easy to get away with in instances such as the special balls that were used for Bonds at-bats, there are a few logistical problems involved with the accusations about Coors Field.

First, a pitcher would quickly feel the difference between balls stored in a humidor door and a ringer that the Rockies might have wanted to insert because of the drastic difference in the seams and slickness of the surface of the ball.

Second, the home plate umpire has a bag of balls on their belt, and the ball boy doesn’t provide a new stock of baseballs until the umpires calls for them, which means changes can’t be made at the whim of the home team or ball boy.

When the new balls are handed to the home plate umpire, he places them in the bag with the other balls and doesn’t sort out which ones he will put into play first ,so there really isn’t a way to ensure that the non-humidor balls would be used for the visiting team.

Third, the key figure in the switching of baseballs would be the high school kid employed as the ball boy, who would have to knowingly change the ball bags in mid-game. How many teenagers do you think could avoid whispering to a pal, "don’t tell anybody, but you won’t believe what we are doing at Coors Field?"

It might be worth nothing that the success of the humidor in "normalizing" the game did lead the game’s general managers  to recommend two years ago at their annual November meeting that all 30 teams add humidors in an effort to level the playing field.

So far, only the Arizona Diamondbacks have publicly discussed adding a humidor.

The point was made that while dry climates, like Colorado, can create a baseball that is more conducive to offensive efforts, and a humid climate, like Florida and the East Coast in the hot days of summer could actually make the balls soft and allow them to exceed weight limits, making them pitcher friendly.

But then, why would a team in a hitter-friendly ballpark, and with a team built around pitching, want to do anything that might neutralize the advantage their pitching staff can get from balls stored in an environment that exposes them to increased humidity, thus making the balls soft and less hitter-friendly?

Tagged: Giants, Tim Lincecum

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