Atlantic League President Rick White after throwing out the first pitch at a High Point Rockers game.Courtesy of Atlantic League
Eliminating the middleman is one the oldest and most certain ways to cut costs. This is about a minor league which did just that, finding a way to manufacture its most integral and unfortunately, most expendable, product: baseballs. Rawlings, which has held MLB baseball rights since 1977, has been making Atlantic League balls for as long as the 24-year-old independent circuit has been around.
Unless you’ve been on Mars since 2020, you’ve heard about the distress and costs COVID catalyzed across the supply chain. Many Asian factories were closed, along with their countries, and container shipping prices hit record highs. Through that pandemical morass, the Atlantic League started manufacturing its own baseballs in China, eventually producing 108,000 balls, which it began using this season.
Even with labor costs escalating, the Atlantic League managed to manufacture balls it says are as good or better than anything ever used on its fields. Just as encouraging are the economics. Last season, Atlantic baseballs from Rawlings cost the league just under $59 a dozen. The league produced its own balls for 25% less, and there’s confidence that it’s not only less expensive, but a better ball. League officials insist they meet or exceed specifications from any league, having tested the balls in two pro leagues, and at two “nationally prominent” university laboratories before they were used. Of course, that’s immaterial if it doesn’t pass muster of those throwing the balls.
“If my pitchers are happy, I’m happy, and they are,” said 1987 World Series MVP Frank Viola, now pitching coach of the Atlantic League’s High Point (N.C.) Rockers. “Feel and grip are everything for a pitcher, and the new ball allows you to be successful as a pitcher right out of the paper. They are absolutely superior to the balls we used last season.”
Other minor leagues have already inquired about participating in the next round of manufacturing.
The project was led by Atlantic League President Rick White, uniquely combining the skills he acquired over 11 years at MLB, where he was MLB Properties president during the original sports licensing boom of the 1980s and 90s; president of Phoenix Footwear and Imperial Headwear; and GM of the non-Swoosh brands at Nike, which then included Cole Haan.
The Atlantic League made its own baseballs, naming them for Ellis Drake, who helped develop the original ball.Courtesy of Atlantic League
“That knowledge of leather processing and manufacturing surely helped us,” White said. Still, you could call this whole experience “baseballs by Zoom.” Because of the pandemic, no visits to the factory were possible. Variables were as changeable as a politician’s agenda.
Along the way, the cost of container shipping from China to the U.S. soared from $7,000 to $32,000. White felt fortunate to eventually get them down to $28,000. Another obstacle: Having just three baseball stitchers at the factory because of COVID; normally, around 100 would be available. The usual letters of credit wouldn’t be accepted because of the pandemic. A substantial deposit was required before manufacturing could begin.
“We were revising forecasts every two weeks,” recalled White. “Everything you’ve seen and heard about the difficulties of manufacturing and shipping during the pandemic, we endured.”
The Atlantic League had been considering making its own balls as long ago as five years ago. White noted that during his seven years as president, the cost of a dozen baseballs has increased 40%. When you go through 10 dozen balls a game, that’s concerning.
It took a year of “parsing and re-parsing” to get a baseball properly specified. Manufacturing began last September and after rigorous QC during the run, they were on container ships in mid-February.
They reached Charleston on April 3, when vagaries at the other side of the supply chain manifested. The boat loaded with baseballs was 49th in line at a port jammed, like so many. Rough weather closed the port for around another week. Still, the league had balls in time for its spring training. A second shipment is on the water now.
The league christened its new ball “The Drake,” after Ellis Drake, a 19th-century Massachusetts inventor who helped develop the familiar two-piece interlocking “figure 8” cover on the outside of a baseball, which helped popularize the game.
There is a trademark pending, but there won’t be a retail version. A popular rapper and a university — each bearing that name — might object.
Even with the success of The Drake, there are no plans to replicate it by manufacturing other equipment. “We’re not getting into the bat and ball business,” White said. “This was a way to save some money and be forward thinking, which we all hope will reflect well upon the Atlantic League. We are still about the game principally, not the equipment.”
White handled plenty of test balls along the way, but said the first time he held a genuine Drake ball was when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch of the season in High Point. He was never a big memorabilia guy, but that’s a ball he plans on keeping.
Terry Lefton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org