Humidor a big help for pitchers in Colorado

Arnie
Stapleton

Denver (AP)
It was during a duck hunt six years ago that the idea for the Coors Field
humidor was born.
An
employee in the Colorado Rockies’ engineering department noticed his leather
boots had dried up and shrunk over the summer. He wondered whether cowhide
baseballs were doing the same thing in

Denver’s
thin, bone-dry air.

The
ballpark had earned the nickname “Coors Canaveral” for all the home runs
launched over the walls — the fences already were deeper than most parks
because of the altitude.

Maybe
that’s why pitchers were complaining that it felt as if they were throwing
billiard balls, they were so slick.

So the
Rockies tested the baseballs and discovered that, sure
enough, employee Tony Cowell’s theory was correct.

“What we
found was the balls were getting smaller and traveling farther,” said

Colorado manager Clint
Hurdle, whose team faced the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 3 of the NLCS at
Coors Field on Sunday night.

“For a
long time, it was unbeknownst to us. We would go, ‘Oooh! and ‘Ahh!’ and watch
them go. And everybody that came to the plate was homer ready,” Hurdle said.

The
Rawlings balls had fallen below Major League Baseball’s regulations, which
require them to be between 5 and 5 ounces with a circumference of 9 to 9
inches. The
Rockies sold MLB on the idea of a
climate-controlled vault to store the baseballs in their boxes on metal racks.

The
9-foot-by-9-foot greenhouse-like room is a scaled-down version of the keg
coolers that keep beer icy before it flows through Coors Field concession taps.

And baseball
at a mile high has never been the same.

At times,
Coors Field can play just like any pitcher’s park, as evidenced by the Rockies’
2-1 squeaker over

Philadelphia
that wrapped up their sweep of the Phillies in the humidor’s playoff debut last
week.

There were
13.4 runs per game scored at Coors in the year before the humidor’s
introduction; that number was down by nearly three runs this season.

In 2001,
there were a major league-high 268 homers hit out of Coors Field. This year,
there were 185, which ranked 10th.

“All we
want to do is make sure we are playing with baseballs that meet Major League
Baseball’s specifications,”
Rockies vice
president of ballpark operations Kevin Kahn said. “And before we weren’t
confident we were doing that. Now we are. That’s really the bottom line.

“And then
the side effect of that is there is better grip on balls than when they were
drying out before,” Kahn said. “They were getting drier and lighter. And again,
the home runs were just one concern. You have to look at walks because guys
weren’t able to have full command of their pitches because they couldn’t get a
grip. So, it was the walks before the home run. That just sends the run number
up.”

Now, runs
are down, games are shorter, ERAs have dipped. Cowell will have to let the
numbers speak for him — he’s off-limits to the media.

The
steel-walled room behind the
Rockies’
clubhouse is always 70 degrees with 50 percent humidity. Baseballs are stored
on large metal racks and rotated with each shipment, about four times a year. Before
games, the baseballs and rubbed with mud and returned to the humidor until game
time.

“It’s like
a walk-in cooler, basically, but instead of keeping things cold, we’re
maintaining a temperature and there’s a humidifier piece to it, as well,” Kahn
said. “When people come in and see it, it’s almost a universal response.
They’re like, ‘Oh. This is it?’ I guess they expect to see a big vat of water
with baseballs bobbing around.”

It holds
about 400 dozen baseballs and a new shipment of 142 came in just this week.

“Those are
World Series balls,” Kahn explained. “It takes a few days to normalize the
effect.”

Baseballs
are taken out and randomly tested periodically and MLB monitors the process.

Colorado
slugger Todd Helton’s power
numbers have diminished in part because of the humidor, but he insists he’s a
fan of it anyhow.

“Oh yeah,
games are shorter, thank God,” Helton said. “I think it’s just sort of leveled
the playing field.”

Diamondbacks
infielder Jeff Cirillo, who played in
Colorado
from 2000-01, said he’s no longer such a critic of the humidor, which he
believes has helped baseball in general and

Colorado in particular.

After the
Rockies’ playoff run, he thinks it’s only going to gain
favor across the league.

“I’ll tell
you what, if the
Rockies get through us and
reach the World Series or even win it, there’s going to be a lot of general
managers that are going to be thinking about adding a humidor,” Cirillo
suggested. “Everybody’s a copycat.”

He wonders
if that would give other teams a homefield advantage.

“I’m still
a big believer that a ballpark should play the way it’s going to play.

Petco
Park
is big, it’s heavy air at night, the Padres, there’s elements to their game. If
the ball’s heavier there, do you lighten the ball?” Cirillo asked.

“So, is
the humidor a good thing? Ultimately, for the integrity of the game? No. But
for the good of the game? For sure.”