Everything has an expiration date -- especially the balls used in major league games.
By TYLER MASON FS North
MINNEAPOLIS — Two pitches.
That was the life span of the first baseball used in Friday's game by Twins starter Brian Duensing. After a first-pitch ball, Kansas City's Alex Gordon fouled the second pitch off to the netting behind home plate. Minnesota's ball boy picked up the ball, taking it to its final resting place somewhere in the bowels of Target Field.
Such is the life of a baseball these days in the major leagues. It's not a long one. In fact, an average of eight to 10 dozen baseballs are used each game, according to Twins assistant equipment manager Tim Burke. On any given night, teams will go through 100 baseballs or more, which equates to just a few pitches per ball. Earlier this month when the Twins and Milwaukee Brewers played a 15-inning game, Burke estimates the club went through between 15 to 18 dozen.
Once a baseball is removed from the game, it never returns.
"They get recycled into batting practice balls," Burke said. "Or we sometimes ship them down to the minor league system."
It's a far cry from "The Sandlot," where the kids would avoid hitting a ball over the fence because, well, that was the only ball they had to play with. If it went over the fence, the game was over.
But in the major leagues, baseballs are discarded without any thought given to it. Several occurrences can take a baseball out of play. If a pitcher throws a breaking pitch that ends up in the dirt, the home plate umpire will usually check it and almost always throw it to the ball boy. Most times, a catcher will automatically assume that the ball in the dirt will be tossed out.
But even a ball that stays in play for a base hit is often taken out of the game, or at least checked by an umpire before a pitcher uses it again. Twins reliever Glen Perkins said that earlier in his career, he used to keep pitching a ball after it was hit for an out.
"If I got a ground ball, I would keep the ball and I would use it," he said. "But then there was one, I was throwing to (catcher) Jose Morales and I threw — it was supposed to sink, and forever reason it cut and it went past him and over the umpire's head. That was really probably the last time I remember using one in a game."
Now, Perkins says he'll ask for a new ball any time he throws one that is hit in play.
"I get a ball back and it might have a little flat spot on it, a little lopsided," Perkins said. "Or if you throw enough pitches, the rub kind of gets polished and they get slick. If a ball lasts too long, I think they get rid of it. It seems lately, after every out I've gotten rid of the ball."
Not all pitchers are as quick to ask for a new baseball. Duensing said the only time he'll change baseballs is if it has a dent or feels lopsided.
"The chance of a pitcher throwing a ball with a scuff is really slim," Duensing said. "Usually even a ball that's hit hard into the outfield or whatever, an umpire will check it when it comes in. It's hard for a baseball to actually stay in the game for a while. …
"The expected life of a baseball's got to be really two pitches maybe, I'd think. Very rarely do you see one baseball used for an entire at-bat."
The life span of a baseball is indeed more than two pitches, though not by much. There are instances, like Friday's opening batter, when a ball does last just two pitches before ending up as a souvenir, safely in the hands of an excited fan. Then there are other times when a ball might last a few batters, such as it did Friday when Duensing recorded two ground ball outs with the same ball before it was finally fouled off.
That ball's total life span? Eight pitches, an eternity in this day and age for a baseball.
Times have certainly changed, though, as the life expectancy of baseballs has gotten shorter and shorter. Back in the 1970s and 1980s when Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven was playing, pitchers were allowed to use balls that had hit the dirt, he said. Now, any pitch in the dirt is changed out.
Tossing balls into the stands — like Twins outfielder Ben Revere did after catching the third out of the first inning Friday — was a no-no during Blyleven's day. Now, it's a common occurrence as players give fans souvenirs.
"We used to be fined if we threw a ball in the stands," Blyleven recalled. "They were like a piece of jewelry, a baseball. The game has changed a lot."
Blyleven also tells a story of a game in which the hide of the baseball started coming apart. As third baseman Gary Gaetti threw the ball back to Blyleven, it fluttered en route to Blyleven's glove.
"He kind of smiled. I looked at it. I smiled," Blyleven said. "I threw the pitch and the guy fouled it off. I was so upset. I wanted him to put it in play. I felt like a Little Leaguer, ‘Bring that ball back! You can get an ice cream cone.' "