The last 4 of my parents' 17 children are boys. I am the second to last. Being boys, we loved sports and we did little else but play them. My younger brother Peter and I challenged the older two, James and Leon, to games of basketball, baseball, football, kickball, mushball (baseball with any old, flat ball we could find in the bushes), broomball (field hockey with brooms and flat balls), anything involving a ball. They routinely slaughtered us but we kept trying. In the summer, we would play until it got dark and then we’d flip on the back yard floodlights and play some more. My father, never a sports fan, often complained,“You guys have got balls for brains.” The double entendre in his complaint, especially fitting in reference to four boys in the throes of puberty, must have been obvious to my dad. It wasn’t to me until I started calling around town asking athletes and coaches if they could help me with a story about balls. Three seconds of silence followed by “...balls?” was the usual response. Adding “athletic” to “balls” only reduced the period of silence to two seconds.
Once the confusion was cleared up, all agreed to help. Geoff Griffin, tennis pro at Balboa Tennis Club at Morley Field, is the first. Sitting on a shaded bench alongside court one at the club, he educates me on tennis balls. He’s dressed in white shorts and a tennis shirt. Droplets of sweat from giving lessons in the midday sun run down his cheeks and forehead. He digs around in a cart full of tennis balls that’s parked in front of him. “Wilson and Penn are really the only two brands when it comes to tennis balls. I probably have one Dunlop in here. Dunlop is the only other company that makes a performance ball. Then there are a couple of little companies like Slazenger, Spalding, and Tre-tom. But people don’t ever come in asking for anything other than Penns or Wilsons.”
A tennis ball is made by molding natural rubber into two hemispheres that are then welded together and covered with felt using adhesive. U.S. Tennis Association rules say the ball should be between two and a half and two and five-eighths inches in diameter, weigh no less than two ounces and no more than two and one-sixteenth, and bounce between 53 and 58 inches when dropped from 100inches onto a concrete court. They are sold in cans of three.
The cans are pressurized to keep the air in the center of the balls from leaking out through the porous rubber, thereby causing the balls to lose their bounce. I ask Griffin what qualities a player looks for in a tennis ball. “In tennis, playability is important, durability is really important. Right now, the most popular ball we have is the Pro Penn —this one right here.” He pulls a ball from the cart and shows it to me.
“People like it the most because it’s a durable ball. Tennis balls’ lives are short. You play three sets and you’ve usually used up a can of balls. After three sets, they’ll look like that,” he holds up a Wilson ball with fluffy felt, “and usually people don’t use them for matches. They might put them into a basket and use them to practice serves with. All of these balls I use for teaching are donations; people play three or four sets with them and they’ll end up in my basket. So to me, durability is the most important factor for people. On a real slow surface, like a newly resurfaced court, you can play for 15 minutes and a brand-new ball will look like this,” he holds up the fluffy ball again. “Sometimes the fuzz will really come up and they’ll start to get really heavy."
The term “heavy” does not mean the ball weighs more. It’s tennis jargon meaning the ball has greater wind resistance.
Don’t look for Pro Penn tennis balls at your local sporting goods store. Griffin says you won’t find them. “The Pro Penn ball is just sold to pro shops," he says, pointing westward toward his establishment in the middle of the complex.
“They don’t sell them to mass merchants or sporting goods stores. There’s the regular Penn ball, which is sold everywhere. People say that the Pro Penn is better, but I couldn’t tell you whether it is or not; I think they are very similar. Then you’ll see a ball like this which is a less expensive Penn ball. You’ll find that in mass merchants for maybe 50 cents to a dollar less per can ($1.99/can at Sports Authority). You wouldn't use those for tournament matches, but a lot of people buy them just to hack around. Wilson has a range of balls too. They have their U.S. Open ball. I don’t think they sell it just to pro shops, but it’s kind of like that. That’s their top-of-the-line ball; you see it at the U.S. Open. Then they also have just the regular Wilson ball — there’s one right there — that's been around forever. It’s an extra-duty ball, but it’s not their top-of-the-line ball. Then they also have their mass-merchant balls.”
Griffin sells the Pro Penn and the Wilson U.S. Open balls for $3.00 a can. The Penns are the hotter item. “I’ve run out of Penns,” he says, “and I figure they’ll buy whatever I have, but people do complain if they don’t have the Penn.” Which does he prefer?
“I prefer the Penn too, but I don’t think I’m as finicky as some of these head cases,” he points behind us to where a vociferous game is raging three courts away. “It’s worse when you start talking about tennis rackets. People think they can’t play with anything but a certain racket or a certain ball, and it’s all in their heads.”
Way down in the bowels of Qualcomm Stadium, next to the Chargers' locker room, sits the equipment office, domain of Sid Brooks, equipment manager of the Chargers. I'm here to talk footballs with him. On the walls of the cluttered office hang old team photos, snapshots of Brooks with famous players like Dan Fouts, Mean Joe Green, and O.J Simpson, and autographed pictures of every president from Nixon to Bush plus vice presidents Dan Quavle and Al Gore. A sword from Brooks’s Air Force career adorns one wall, and every horizontal surface in the room holds at least one game ball from past Charger victories. Each game ball has one of its four leather panels painted white. The score, date of the game, and name of the person awarded the ball arc painted over the white. On a shelf to my right sits a ball presented to Sid Brooks in memory of John Carney’s record 29th consecutive field goal, a 27-yard game-winner, versus Houston, September 19, 1993.
You may remember Brooks if you were watching a Chargers versus Giants game in December of 1995. He’s the man who got hit in the back of the head and knocked out by one of a few thousand ice balls thrown by the Giants Stadium crowd that day.
“I’m going to give you this to read,” he hands me a few photocopied pages and scurries toward the equipment room. “Look those over and I’ll be right back.”
The photocopies are from the 19% NFI. Game Operations Manual. “In 19%,” it states, “the following guidelines will be used in the preparation of game footballs; (1) Wilson Sporting Goods will supply appropriate directions and supplies for equipment managers for preparing (rubbing down) the footballs. This insures consistency of preparation. (2) The home team equipment manager will be allowed to prepare (rub down) prior to game day and will be allowed to test them briefly with his team’s quarterback. (3) 36 game footballs (24 in domed stadiums) will be delivered to the officials’ locker room two hours prior to the game. At this time officials will again rub down the balls using the Wilson-provided directions and supplies from the home team; will check to insure proper inflation of the balls. (4) The home club must also provide an air pump for the officials’ use and should have extra footballs available in case any in the initial batch are defective.”
While I finish reading. Brooks comes back into the office and hands me an official ball, wrapped in plastic. Its color is between brown and tan. Its shape, one of Brooks’s photocopies says, is called a prolate spheroid. Next, he sets on the desk in front of me two small brushes, each about half the size of a shoe brush, one with white, the other with black bristles, and a pressure gauge sporting an NFL logo.
“These are the brushes we use to rub down the balls before games. You use the white one first and the black one second."
Do the balls come already pumped up hard like this?
“Yes,” answers the soft-spoken, silver-haired Brooks. “But that’s not hard enough. You might think it’s the regular pressure, but it’s not. Take it out of the plastic.”
I take it out and he tests it with the gauge. “Two pounds underpressure.”
He hands the ball back to me. “Feel how slick it is? That’s why we rub it down. You have to take that slippery sheen off with the brushes.” Can you buy this ball in a sporting goods store?
“Not that one. You can buy the F1000, which is an official NFL ball, but it’s not the game ball. (The league) has an agreement [with Wilson] that this ball is made only for NFL games. You can’t tell the difference, the only difference is this is an F1010 and the store ball is an F1000.” The F1000 sells for $69.99 at Sports Authority as the “NFL Game Ball.” It’s genuine leather like the F1010—pigskin hasn’t been used since the '40s — and has the same markings. But it isn’t the real NFL game ball. What a difference a model number makes. And what a difference an NFL endorsement makes. At Sports Authority, at least 70 percent of the footballs for sale are Wilsons. They range from the bottom-of-the-line rubber Indestructo youth ball ($9.99), to the leather TOY (FI300, $34.99), to the top-of-the-line “Game Ball.”
The same is true of basketballs. Seventy percent of the basketballs at Sports Authority are Spaldings, the official ball of the NBA. The only leather ball they sell, in fact, is the NBA Game Ball at $64.99. Spalding puts “NBA” on all their basketballs, including the $9.99 rubber balls like the ones you used in your grammar school P.E. class. What does that ball have to do with the NBA? Nothing, but the label lets Spalding charge a dollar more for rubber balls than Nike, Wilson, or Rawlings charge.
You can also see the Spalding/NBA influence if you play pickup basketball at the park. When I’ve played at Ocean Beach Elementary School, Robb Field in O.B., Presidio Park, or Henry Clay Elementary School near my house in Rolando, I've noticed that the most popular ball is the synthetic leather Spalding NBA Indoor/Outdoor ($21.99 at Sports Authority). I owned one myself, until it got stolen at Henry Clay.
But not all basketball players use Spalding balls. San Diego State basketball teams use Wilson. Marty Wilson, assistant basketball coach for the University of San Diego men’s team, says, “We use the Rawlings basketball, which is the official ball of our league, the West Coast Conference. All eight teams in our league use it. [Every year] each team is given ten basketballs for free, and then you can buy however many you need after that. Our players like them because they are wide seamed.”
Over the phone, I ask him, what is the advantage of the wide seam?
“It’s easier to grip. You can fit your fingers into the seam and palm the ball because of the wider seam. It’s almost like you can cheat a little bit because your fingers catch in the grooves.”
Up until I was 18 years old, I had never played soccer and never planned to. Then a friend asked me to fill in on his short-handed team for a game. I loved it right away. I was taken by the game’s power, grace, and fluidity, so I joined my friend’s team. I’ve played club soccer ever since, most recently for Blitzkrieg of the San Diego County Soccer league.
With the exception of golf, in no sport do players discuss balls more than in soccer. Maybe it’s because soccer balls, though they must be spherical and 27 to 28 inches in circumference, can vary widely in design and construction. I don’t know. But on my team, not a practice goes by when someone doesn’t blame a poor shot on the ball, and before every game we argue over what ball should be the game ball, everybody offering the referee his favorite. As a soccer neophyte I found it funny, but now, seven years later, I complain and argue about balls too.
I meet Brian Quinn —ex player and former head coach of the San Diego Sockers and present head coach with the San Jose Clash—at the Sports Arena to talk soccer balls. The former U.S. National Team member’s eyes are a striking blue, and he speaks with the accent of his native Northern Ireland.
“Indoor soccer balls," he explains, “differ from outdoor soccer balls in size. Outdoors, they use what’s called a size five. But indoors, they play with a size four, which is smaller and travels quicker.”
What makes a good ball?
He leans back in his desk chair. “Obviously, the feeling that when you strike the ball, when you make contact, the ball will do what you want it to do. For me, I think it’s important that the contact and feel of the ball is good. Right now, the good [outdoor] soccer balls are the Adidas Questra, which they use in the World Cup; the Mitre ball that’s being played in the MLS; and the other one is the Nike 800, the ball the National Team uses. Some balls, when you blow them up, maybe it’s the bladder or maybe it’s the casing, but they’re hard. But the Questra, the MLS, and the 800 have a softness and a feel to them and the contact is good.
“Indoor balls, the last few years, I haven’t been a big fan of. The reason is the balls the last couple of years — one was a Reebok and one was a Brine— were too busy, too explosive. The two best balls that I played with indoors: there was a leather one from Spalding — that was probably a long time ago — and then there was one that I think was called a Wilson Keeper.” For more scientific answers to my soccer-ball questions, Quinn refers me to Soccer Man, a store next door to the Sports Arena, where Tony Puccetti, Soccer Man vice president, gives me a crash course. “There are three components of a soccer ball: you have an outside casing, the layers of padding underneath it, and then your bladder. The difference in the price is in how many layers of padding are in the ball and what the casing is like. The layers of padding are sheets of foam that go around the inside of the ball. Now the more layers of padding that go around the ball, the more shape retention it has and the more active the ball is — the more responsive off the foot and off the ground. Now the 1994 World Cup ball,” he reaches up and takes an Adidas Questra off its display rack on the wall, “it has five layers and one of the layers is polyurethane, which is like rubber. That’s why this ball is livelier than all of the others — it has five layers.”
Puccetti pulls down another ball, an Umbro, which is dull in appearance compared to the shiny Questra. “Now this [Questra] is a $100 ball, and this [Umbro] is a $ 13 ball. See how this [Questra] has a sheen and this doesn’t? The sheen gives you water protection. Now some people ask, ‘If it’s shiny, does that mean that once it gets wet, it’s slippery?’ The answer is no.”
Most of the 20 or so balls on the wall have the 32-panel construction — pentagons and hexagons—of the classic black -and-white soccer ball, though only one or two have black panels. “The new thing now, the biggest rage,” Puccetti explains, “is the all-white balls.”
But some of the balls are completely different The Umbro Club, a $26 ball, has 18 rectangular panels in six groups three, like a volleyball. The Nike 250 P20 ($25) has 20 panels, 8 triangular and 12 L-shaped. “The thinking behind the 20-panel design,” Puccetti explains, “is that it’s geometry at its best. It’s computer engineered to keep its shape because of the way the panels are formed. Plus, since there are fewer panels at the time you kick the ball, the shape is distorted less, and thus the ball flies truer.”
“For instance,” he replaces the Questra and takes down a ball with large, hourglass-shaped panels, “did you see the six-panel ball? This thing is really lively. You just touch it and it flies.” He bounces the ball, an Umbro Elite VI ($45), off the floor three or four times and it rebounds up over head level.
Is it leather?
Puccetti puts the ball back on the wall “No, none of the balls are leather. The last time they used a leather ball in an international competition was in the ’82 World Cup. The reason for that is leather is more expensive, number one. Plus, the synthetic is so advanced now. With a leather ball, you have 32 individual panels and you can’t gauge how much each individual panel is going to stretch. They were about $100, and you could only use them for one game because they would become egg-shaped. So starting in the ’86 World Cup, they started using synthetic material for the balk Synthetic leather balls are cheaper to produce, cheaper for the people that come into the store, and everyone ends up being a little happier.”
Jack Henn and Mark Warner are the head coaches, respectively, of the men’s and women’s volleyball teams at San Diego State. We’re in Warner’s small office in the athletic building near the track at State. They explain the difference between men’s and women’s volleyballs to me.
“Our men’s program and all of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation uses this ball right here,” Warner says, holding up a Molten True Touch. “It’s a nylon-wound ball.”
“It’s nylon-wound inside of it. It’s got the rubber bladder in it that actually pumps up. Then there’s nylon winding on the lining of this white part,” he touches the skin of the ball, “and each one of these little patches is vulcanized on there.” I’m having trouble visualizing it. Henn holds his right index finger up to say “Just a minute” and steps next door to his own office. In 30 seconds he’s back with an old Molten ball and a Swiss Army knife.
“You’re going to get a real lesson here,” Warner says.
Henn makes a six-inch cut in the ball revealing the black bladder, which is glued to the inner lining of the leather skin. With the blade, he separates a section of the bladder from the cover. Between the two is a web of fine nylon threads woven like steel belts in a tire.
“These other balls,” Henn says, shaking a Tachikara, a women’s ball “are loose-bladder,” Warner interjects.
“Hear that?” Henn asks, still shaking the ball. Something bumps around inside, thump, thump, thump. “That’s a loose bladder inside there."He picks up the cut ball again. “This bladder is actually glued to that nylon winding." Holding up the loose-bladder ball, he says, “In between the loose bladder and this [leather cover] it’s cotton winding instead of nylon. That’s the basic difference. This ball is a little softer and you can actually grab it and squeeze it a little bit more. [Nylon-wound] balls are harder.”
I ask what makes the men’s balls harder, the nylon or the nonloose bladder?
“Well,” Henn answers, “it’s a combination of both. I think what the nylon winding does is it really keeps the balls from splitting at the seams, because the men hit the ball harder. [For men], a cotton ball would maybe last a week, whereas a nylon-wound ball would last forever.”
How much do these balls cost?
“Thirty-five dollars minimum for one of these top-of-the-line balls," Warner says. “It may be more."
He refers me to Volley World at Belmont Park in Mission Beach to find out. He’s right. Top-of-the-line indoor balls range from $45 to $50. Good outdoor balls are more, $50 to $60. I ask the salesman, Michael, why this is.
“Just because of the quality of the leather,” he says, turning to the display wall behind the counter. “We have three high-quality beach volleyballs. They are all-leather and they range from about $50 to $59. The Mikasa Beach Champ is the ball they use for international games and for the four-man tour. This is a Spalding Top Flite Gold [$56] and this is the Wilson AVP [$59, marked down from $69]. It’s the ball that’s used in the AVP, two-man. Now, Wilson is also sponsoring the two-women tour.”
AVP, which stands for Association of Volleyball Professionals, is shorthand for the
professional beach volleyball tour. Another reason the outdoor volleyballs are more expensive is that their panels are hand-stitched together, whereas the indoor balls have glued seams.
Does he have anything more economical?
“I just got some in. I have two; one is $16, one is $20.”
Why are they cheaper?
“Because they’re synthetic leather.”
Does that make a difference?
“Yes, they’re harder on your wrist and they’re just not high quality. They are for recreation and beginners.”
I called the Padres to find out about baseballs. Major league baseballs, manufactured by Rawlings, are made out of cork wrapped with string and covered with two hourglass-shaped leather panels sewn together with more string. The rules state, “The ball shall not weigh less than five nor more than five and one-fourth ounces and measure not less than nine nor more than nine and one-fourth inches in circumference.”
American and National league teams use the same ball, the only difference being the label or brand on the ball. An average of 80 balls are used every game. Balls that the umpire or pitcher rejects are used in batting and fielding practice. The ball can be purchased at any sporting goods store. At Sports Authority, it’s $9.99.
Alvin Lou’s Drilling Room is inside Parkway Bowl on Fletcher Parkway in El Cajon. Lou, 42, is a two-time Professional Bowling Association Champion. Thirty or 40 bowling balls on racks cover one wall of the small pro shop.
Tell me about bowling balls, I say.
“Well, there are basically three types of materials they use to make bowling balls now. They have your plastic, your urethane, and what they call a reactive resin, a reactive urethane. They used to make bowling balls out of rubber. They don’t do that anymore. The characteristics of the three; plastic tends to slide down the lane farther, it doesn’t grip the lane much; your urethane balls grip the lane more so you get a little bit more roll—if you turn the ball, you’ll get more hook; the reactive resin will slide a little bit more in the front, but potentially it will hook twice as much at the last portion of the lane.”
How good do you have to be to notice the difference?
“I think if you turn the ball at all, you can see the difference. But to make it effective, to get the benefits of it, you need to be averaging 150 or above. What
you need to do to be able to use a ball’s characteristics to your advantage is know where to stand, where to throw the ball, and make the proper adjustments. So you need to be able to throw it where you want to throw it. Obviously, if you can’t throw it where you want to throw it, it doesn’t matter what the ball does.”
Lou says there’s no brand of bowling ball that’s considered the best. “There are a lot of different brands,” he says. “ The different companies that make balls: AMF, Brunswick, Ebonite, Storm. Right now, Brunswick has a very good ball out called the Zone. Hammer has got a new 3-D Offset that’s very good. Columbia’s products, some of those are pretty good. So there are a lot of different companies that make bowling balls nowadays. As far as what’s the best, it just depends on who’s got the hot ball. It’s not always the same company that’s got the hot ball.”
Today’s hot ball?
“The Speed Zone is probably the hottest ball in my shop right now. It’s made by Brunswick. On tour, the Triton Heat by Track is the hottest.”
The Drilling Room used to carry every new ball that came out. Now Lou can’t do that simply out of space considerations. He decides whether to stock a ball according to how much talk he hears about it around the bowling alley. I ask him what the most expensive balls sell for.
“As much as $299 right now [for the Quantum Helix]. Probably, your average top-of-the-line ball goes for, suggested retail, about $200. Most of the time you can get a good ball starting at $100.
“What I’ll do, since they make so many bowling balls, is I’ll take a ball that was top-of-the-line a year or two ago and put it on sale. It will be a substantial savings compared to when it came out. So you can get last year’s hot model or the year before’s model, which is still a very good ball, for a low price. In feet, that’s the way that Cuda C is. I throw that ball, and that ball’s been out for two or three years and it’s still a very good ball and I don’t mind throwing it — and I could throw anything I wanted to. It might not be the newest, hottest thing out, but it’s a lot better for the money than some of the other stuff. You get more value out of it.”
Golf balls are advertised more than any other ball Why? Because half the fun in golf is talking about golf; talking about swings, talking about strategy, talking about courses, talking about 300-yard drives, talking about birdies that turn into bogeys, talking about clubs, and even talking about balls.
Walt Willows and I are sitting in the lounge at Mission Trails Golf Course to do just that. He has a putter in one hand and three golf balls in the other. He bounces a ball off the face of the putter. “This one is a Top Flite Hot XL. It’s a two-piece ball made by Spalding. It’s just a Surlyn cover and a hard piece of rubber. So listen to the sound of this ball," clack... clack... clack.
“Now listen to this sound,” click...click...click. “Listen to the difference. The first one is a Top Flite. This is a solid ball. If a person is a real beginner, this is what he’ll get because it’ll last him a long time, he can’t cut it. You can hear that hard, crisp sound,” he drops it again ...clack... clack... clack. “Next ball isa Titleist DT 2-Piece," click...click...click. “A little bit quieter, a little bit more muffled. The difference is in the cover. They’re both two-piece balls, but the Titleist has a softer cover. Now listen to this third one,” cluck...cluck...cluck.
A bit softer than the second.
“That’s right, because it is softer. It’s a Balata ball [Titleist Tour Balata]. It would cut easier, but it’s designed that way because with that golf ball, you can really spin the ball. You have a little bit more control over it. So the softer the ball, the more control you’re going to have."
The Tour Balata has a liquid-filled center wrapped tightly in rubber threads and covered with a soft cover known as “Balata.” The ball's softness makes it easier to control around the green, but at the expense of a little distance on full shots. The two-piece balls are harder and therefore fly farther, but they are more difficult to control. Which is better: distance or control? That’s for you to decide. However, you should know that the most popular ball among players on the PGA tour is the Titleist Tour Balata. Willows plays it as well. “I use them for control, not necessarily for distance,” he explains. “If a guy is just concerned with distance, he’s going to hit it a long way— into the trees. I'd just as soon have a ball I can keep in the fairway and move my way up the fairway.”
Willows places golf balls no higher than third on the list of golf priorities. He lifts his right hand from the table and extends a thumb in a counting gesture. “I would say first of all you need a swing that you can repeat, and then you need a golf club that will assist you in repeating that swing, not being too heavy, not being too light, not too stiff, not too flexible. You need a club that’s going to fit you. If you can nuke a repeating swing with a club that fits you fine, then the ball comes in. If you want to play your best, you’re going to have to consider the golf ball. Now, once you’ve found a golf ball that you play the best with and you can make perform, stay with it. Don’t experiment! Don’t experiment, because there is a certain feel you expect when you swing, and if it feels different because you changed balls, that may make you change a lot of things in your swing. It may make you swing differently. So as I find the things I need — a good swing, a shaft that produces the best distance for my swing — then I'm going to find a ball that performs for me the best and I’m going to stay with it."