CT scanning besmirches country's national pastime

April 1, 2007

What do baseballs, corn kernels, and rocket boosters have in common? They've all undergone CT scanning at Universal Medical Systems in Cleveland.

What do baseballs, corn kernels, and rocket boosters have in common? They've all undergone CT scanning at Universal Medical Systems in Cleveland.

Scanning corn kernels and rocket boosters is routine business for industrial customers trying to squeeze out every last bit of information to increase efficiency and profits. But baseball is the passion of founder and president David Zavagno.

In the 1990s, Zavagno began scanning baseballs to determine if the ball's composition had changed in ways that would account for an increase in home runs. He found nothing about the windings, covers, stitching, or weight of the balls that could account for their apparent propensity to crest the home run wall more often than in decades past.

Then came an auspicious moment for the entrepreneur. He had noticed that some Cleveland minor league players began to hit many more home runs once they moved up to the majors. To his surprise, he discovered that the minor league balls had a center, or pill, made entirely of cork, whereas the major league balls had a pill made of a mix of cork and rubber.

He then scanned major league balls from earlier decades and found a linear progression of a larger and more rubberized pill. Impact tests comparing various baseballs have verified that the key to the distance a ball will travel is the pill.

To compress cork to the same degree as rubber would take three times as much force. That's a lot of stored energy in the rubber, which allows the ball to fly faster and farther, according to Zavagno.

"Was the ball Roger Maris used in 1961 the same ball that Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire played with? The answer is a resounding no," he said.

Zavagno said that today's balls do not meet Major League Baseball specifications, which call for a center of cork. A Major League Baseball spokesperson, however, said in a statement in response to Zavagno's charge that the core of the ball has been unchanged for decades.

When Zavagno isn't scanning baseballs, his projects vary widely. He has scanned corn kernels to determine the amount of oil they contain, rocks to ascertain their fluid dynamics, onions to detect those with "double hearts," prehistoric fossils to uncover particular evolutionary bone distinctions, and fiber-optic boules to quantify the density of the material.