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Rawlings may have been misleading consumers about postseason memorabilia baseballs

2019 World Series Game 1 - Washington Nationals v. Houston Astros

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 22: A detail shot of the official Rawlings Major League Baseballs during Game 1 of the 2019 World Series between the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday, October 22, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

MLB Photos via Getty Images

A handful of baseball writers have been on the altered-baseball beat for the last few years. Among them is Dr. Meredith Wills, who has studied the baseball -- manufactured by Rawlings -- several times for The Athletic. Wills took apart batches of baseballs, measuring things such as the width of the seams. She found that, indeed, newer batches of baseballs used seams that were about nine percent thicker. This likely contributed to the rise in blisters on pitchers’ fingers during the same time period.

Major League Baseball has an ownership stake in Rawlings, partnering with Seidler Equity Partners in 2018 to purchase the company for just under $400 million. MLB claimed it would have “even more input and direction on the production of the official ball.” Despite ever-increasing evidence that the baseball was altered, the league maintained for a while that nothing was different. When even its own commissioned study turned up evidence that the ball was materially different, it could no longer remain in denial. Still, commissioner Rob Manfred as recently as this past February suggested that other factors contributed to the rise in home runs. 6,776 home runs were hit in 2019, shattering the previous record of 6,105 set in 2017 which shattered the previous record of 5,693 set in 2000.

Wills has remained on the beat, focusing on 2019 postseason baseballs. She hasn’t received any help from the league or from Rawlings in uncovering answers. Wills mentioned that her previous sources had become hesitant to provide baseballs in fear of retribution from their employers. Others had their access to baseballs cut off. Nevertheless, Wills decided to purchase three boxes of 12 postseason baseballs each (36 total) from the Rawlings website for $299.99 apiece. They were described as “the official 2019 Postseason baseball ... being used in all of the 2019 Major League Baseball Playoff Games.” Wills confirmed with Rawlings that they were both authenticated and identical to the balls being used on the field during the postseason.

For the blow-by-blow details, check out Wills’ article for The Athletic as well as another report for The Athletic by Katie Strang. A quick summary: Wills found that the 2019 postseason balls were not consistent with the construction of baseballs from the 2019 regular season. By finding other commonalities, such as the Batch Designation Codes found on the inside of the leather, she was able to link those balls with ones that were likely leftovers from 2018 re-marketed as 2019 postseason balls. Strang spoke to several people, including Susan Grant, who is the director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America. Grant said that while Rawlings’ actions might not constitute outright fraud, she found the situation “troubling,” and described it as “deceptive or misleading.”

Not only does Major League Baseball seem unable to manufacture baseballs with consistent characteristics, its company may be actively misleading customers purchasing memorabilia. As alluded to yesterday when news broke that the Astros were breaking the rules to steal signs, MLB’s recent embracing of gambling creates an obligation for it to be both publicly vigilant and transparent, even more so than it should be otherwise. If it is only one or neither, the integrity of the game is called into question. That Wills, Strang, and others have turned up more questions than answers over the last few years is a bad look for Major League Baseball. It should be assisting them in getting to the bottom of this, not pulling down the shades and locking the door behind them.

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