By Paresh Dave
YOKOHAMA, Japan (Reuters) - They hail from Sri Lanka, enjoy 30-second rubs in U.S. mud, get top-notch service in Japan because of the pandemic and are called the best in the world by Joe Ryan, an Olympian who played the game of his life on Friday.
They are the Olympic baseballs, 144 of them freshly unwrapped before each of the 16 games at Tokyo 2020. Made by Japan sporting goods company SSK Corp in Sri Lanka, the roughly 145g white spheres with red laces and black-ink logos are gaining attention at the Olympics for several reasons.
When the Olympics last held baseball in 2008, balls came from Japanese rival Mizuno Corp, which still supply softballs, but lost the baseball deal.
In addition, to prevent COVID-19 spread, young stadium attendants are keeping separate bags of balls for each team during games and using white-cloth gloves or clear medical ones for handling. They also ferry to and from the pitching mound for each side separate bags of rosin, a mixture of pine tar and chalk to dry sweaty hands and slick balls.
Above all, the Olympic balls are reminding that alternatives exist to the Rawlings balls sparking frustration and cheating in the world's top professional association, Major League Baseball (MLB).
The league this year instituted mid-game equipment checks to catch pitchers who "doctor" baseballs by surreptitiously rubbing banned sticky substances such as name-brand offering Spider Tack.
Pitchers contend the substance overcomes inconsistencies in design and slippery texture. Better grip increases ball movement, but MLB officials worry that all the darting and dipping pitches and the foolish swings at them is making the game boring.
Joe Ryan, a top Minnesota Twins prospect playing for the U.S. Olympic team, said on Friday the SSK version "is the best ball in the world" and urged America to adopt the "amazing" and "perfect" creation.
After allowing just a run on five hits over six innings, the 25-year-old earned some credibility.
"The hitters love it, I love throwing with it. All the pitchers love throwing with it," he said. "It would solve a lot of the current issues with foreign substances. I can't say enough: It is the best baseball I have ever touched."
The mud rubbers get some credit. Ahead of Ryan's start, Reuters watched a trio of masked umpiring officials dip their fingers in water and take a swipe of Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud, which is harvested by a small company in a secret location along New Jersey's Delaware River.
The team then patter balls with the mixture, as if they were shaping a pizza-dough ball. It removes the slippery sheen of fresh product.
"So the pitchers can grab it and when they throw it, it's not slipping off their hands," said Gustavo Rodriguez, baseball umpire director for World Baseball Softball Confederation.
Cheating and complaints have been minimal through qualifiers and the first three Olympic days, he said.
MLB requires use of the same mud, but the feel is better when applied to SSK's ball, people who have used both say.
"If SSK wants to send me some more, I'll give them an address," Ryan said.
Sri Lanka has never produced an MLB player, but has celebrated on government social media accounts its Olympics role. Afterwards, balls will go to Japanese schools and clubs. Players get keepsakes, too.
Israel's Danny Valencia, who homered off Ryan, said he got the ball he struck.
"To be able to take these little trophies to show your kid, show my son, it's a really good feeling," he said.
(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Christian Radnedge)