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The weird science of the Wiffle ball

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EASTON, Pa. — Ron Schraeder kicks the dirt off the pitching rubber and palms the Wiffle ball. Gripping his signature knuckler, he smiles like he alone knows the secret to this magical pitch.

But Mr. Wiffle has never met Dr. Wiffle.

In a small office 25 miles to the south, where Wiffle balls share shelves with physics textbooks, a shy college professor who has never played the game can scientifically explain Stroudsburg, Pa., bar owner Schraeder's fluttering knuckler — she may even one day unlock the key to the unhittable pitch.

"There's a lot of guys who think they've discovered the secret," said Jenn Stroud Rossmann, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. "But even the magic ball has to obey the laws of physics."

Her groundbreaking research, which began with the aerodynamics of the Wiffle ball, has turned into a study of what professional Wifflers call "scuffing," a unique (and legal) pattern of scrapes, scratches and cuts that can transform a flighty new ball into an ornery jet fighter angling to mow down the next batter.

In baseball, to scuff is to cheat. But in Wiffle ball, anything goes.

Rossmann's findings slice through years of speculation about the Wiffle ball, the rebellious stepchild of the baseball that seemed guided more by chance than science. From the solitude of the laboratory, she has become a starlet of a treasured backyard pastime.

"It's not entirely comfortable being the Wiffle expert," said Rossmann, surrounded by piles of Wiffle balls, some smooth and clean, others chafed and cut.

To her left is her favorite framed photograph: a stream of foggy air flowing over two Wiffle balls suspended in a wind tunnel.

Rossmann first encountered the plastic ball with eight oblong holes and its skinny sidekick, the banana-yellow bat, by chance in 2002.

Struggling to keep students awake during physics classes at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., she began studying the movements of a baseball. When she presented her findings at a conference that year, a man in the audience asked, "What about a Wiffle ball?"

"A what?" Rossmann replied.

Created in 1953, the Wiffle ball was Connecticut native David N. Mullany's solution to turning his 12-year-old son into a pitching menace without blowing out his arm. Five decades later, Rossmann and her students put the ball to the test.

Using a wind tunnel shaped like a giant plunger, they found that a smooth, new Wiffle ball dips, rises and curves because of the positioning of the eight holes, which catch the air and move the ball in different ways.

Two different airflows affect how the ball dances: one on the outside (the air flowing above and below the ball), and one on the inside (the air flowing through the holes and circling through the hollow body). The dominant force depends on the speed of the pitch.

Winds are calm outside Teddy's Tavern, where Schraeder stares down a batter on a makeshift field carved from a rectangular plot of grass. He may not know physics, but he knows his pitches like only a lifelong player with a sorcerer's touch could know.


At the annual Wiffle tournament, where neighbors battle before feasting on meatballs and sausages, an umpire keeps tabs on pitch speeds. Lower speeds keep the ball's maneuvering to a minimum and give batters a fighting chance. In this case, the outside forces on the ball dominate.

"Warning!" the umpire yells from his shaded lawn chair near first base. "Slow it down, Pitch."

At higher speeds, like those thrown in professional leagues, players despise a smooth, new Wiffle ball because its physics — however consistent — make it nearly impossible to drop over the plate for a strike. The inside forces dominate, and the ball tends to be more erratic.

The American Journal of Physics published Rossmann's findings in 2007. In the paper, she mentioned how professionals rough up their Wiffle balls to tame the airborne jig. The theory has it that scuffing the surface disturbs the air flows and causes sharper, more controllable breaks and curves.

Rossmann's mention of scuffing got players' attention.

"I told her whatever day she was available I'd cancel everything," said Brett Bevelacqua, director of "Yard Work," a 2009 documentary about professional Wiffle ball that featured Rossmann's work. "I was dying to hear how she could improve my hobby life."

After Bevelacqua's documentary aired a year ago on the New England Sports Network, Rossmann began getting calls and receiving letters from pitchers.

"The Wiffles usually come in a little box with a handwritten label, nothing like my official mail," Rossmann said. "Some just write a note like, 'Amazing balls,' or 'Magic balls,' or 'This ball drops like a stone.' I've gotten about 21 scuffed balls in the mail."

Like lobstermen who paint unique patterns on their buoys, each Wiffler employs a unique scuffing technique. Bevelacqua uses 36-grit sandpaper to remove the shine and create fuzzy hairs of plastic. He claims his 80 mph pitches (yes, 80 mph) bend three feet before reaching the plate.

"Everyone thinks we're kidding when we say we can throw like that," he said.

Rossmann uses balls like those sent to her to help players improve — and to subversively teach them science. After a few months of testing, she writes a handwritten note with a diagram or two and any tips she can offer.

So has she uncovered the Holy Grail of Wiffle ball? Not quite.

Scuffing definitely makes a difference. But countless variables leave room for players to be creative, and in the end, whipping a Wiffle ball across the plate comes down to good, old-fashioned practice.

Bottom of the second inning outside Schraeder's tavern. Hot off a strong turn on the mound, Schraeder settles into the batter's box, clutching his skinny bat, knowing full well Wiffle will never be a hitter's game. He could try to guess the pitch, run the physics, crunch the numbers, but here comes the ball ...


He pounds the bat to the ground and uncorks a spit.

"That high stuff always gets you," he says. "Tough pitch."

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.