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Getting major league baseballs in the hands of rehabbing pitchers

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Major league pitchers rehabbing in the minors are allowed to use MLB baseballs instead of minor league baseballs. Scott Lesher of the Buffalo Bisons makes sure the pitchers get the right balls.

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Buffalo Bisons clubhouse manager Scott Lesher holds an International League baseball in his right hand and a Major League baseball in his left.
Minor Leaguer

I was watching Aaron Sanchez’s final rehab start with New Hampshire against Portland on MiLB.tv when the Sea Dogs’ broadcaster mentioned that since both Sanchez and the Portland’s starter Eduardo Rodriguez were rehabbing, only Major League Baseball—uhh—baseballs have been used so far in the game. While I knew that the minor leagues use a different ball compared to the majors, I did not know that major league pitchers in rehab assignments were allowed to use their familiar baseballs during their outings with minor league clubs.

So to learn more I stopped by the office of Scott Lesher, the Buffalo Bisons’ home clubhouse manager. Born in Philadelphia, Lesher has spent the past 29 years of his life as a clubhouse manager, first with the double-A Wichita Wranglers and then moving over to the triple-A Bisons in 2003.

The practice of pitchers continuing using MLB baseballs in rehab stints is a relatively new phenomenon, starting probably some time this century.

“Someone said it started with John Smoltz in a rehab,” Lesher noted, while saying that it was an unsubstantiated rumour, “he was the guy who complained and said [minor league balls] were different.” Smoltz’s final stint in the minors came in 2009.

Lesher can’t really feel too much of a difference between the baseballs marked “Major League Baseball” and the ones marked “International League” and I certainly could not sort a mixed bag of them blindfolded. Various pitchers have been quoted saying that the minor league version has wider, more pronounced seams and think I felt that too—or maybe I just convinced myself that I felt it.

“The pitchers are so precise—this is what they do for a living. They are sure there’s some difference.”

The reason why there even is a difference is money: MLB baseballs are made in Costa Rica while MiLB balls are made in China. The MiLB balls are almost half the cost of the MLB ones, and for an organization with just one major league club but seven or more minor league affiliates, the cost difference is substantial.

Lesher confirmed that there is a plan for the two affiliated triple-A leagues, the Pacific Coast League and the International League, to adopt the major league baseball in order to better transition players into the big leagues. However, this adds to the operational costs of both the major league and the triple-A teams and which party will carry the brunt of the cost increase is still apparently in discussion.

In the Toronto organization, the Blue Jays’ Dunedin-based equipment coordinator Billy Wardlow generally drops off a couple of cases of MLB baseballs in Buffalo as the equipment truck comes north from Florida at the end of spring training. They stay locked up in Lesher’s equipment room until they are needed, which wasn’t until late July this year for the Bisons. When he’s told that a Blue Jays pitcher will be joining Buffalo on a rehab stint, he gets the Bisons’ batboys to rub up a few dozen balls (for a starter, fewer for a reliever) and puts it in a special ball bag so the umpires are supplied with the right ones when the rehabber takes the mound.

As the home equipment manager, Lesher is also responsible for ensuring a visiting pitcher on rehab is also furnished with major league balls. The Pawtucket Red Sox were in town with reliever Austin Maddox, who was on an injury rehab assignment.

“Their GM sent an email to our GM, copying the International League president and copying me, saying that a player requests the use of major league balls. The [PawSox] would supply the balls, but we’ll have to get it into the umpires’ room.”

Sometimes there is ample notice to prepare the MLB baseballs, but sometimes last-minute decisions by the front office happen. When Marcus Stroman was making his remarkable comeback from injury in 2015, he had his first rehab start with the Lugnuts and was able to use MLB balls that were stored in Lansing. However, the Bisons had already departed for their final road trip of the season before receiving notice from the Blue Jays that Stroman was going to triple-A for his subsequent rehab start. But fortunately the Blue Jays were playing in Boston while the Bisons were an hour away in Pawtucket.

“[We] actually sent someone from Pawtucket down to Boston to get some balls from the Blue Jays’ clubhouse guy,” Lesher recalled. The club literally goes out of its way to make sure the guy from the big league is comfortable so they only need to focus about getting better and back to contributing.

I also quizzed Scott Lesher about rehab pants, jerseys, and uniform numbers in part 2 of my interview.