Major League baseballs: Made in Costa Rica

All those baseballs are made by hand right here in Costa Rica.

The humble baseball has been a hot topic in the United States lately.

In 2019, when Major League Baseball (MLB) hitters walloped home runs at record rates, pitchers complained the ball had been “juiced” — deliberately altered to increase scoring.

MLB never admitted to that accusation, but it is using a new baseball this season. Suddenly, offenses are historically bad.

Insignificant as they may seem, tiny changes in stitching and weight can make huge differences on the game of baseball, a multi-billion dollar industry. With such high stakes, it’s important to get the manufacturing process just right.

And all those baseballs are made by hand right here in Costa Rica.

Rawlings first arrived in Costa Rica in 1987 and consolidated its baseball-manufacturing operations here in 1990, choosing the country for its socioeconomic stability. Since then, all baseballs used in Major League games are made at their factory in Turrialba.

It takes about 10 days, start to finish, to make one baseball. A cork and rubber center (known as “the pill”) is wound in wool, clad in top-grain leather, and hand-stitched together — 108 stitches, to be precise.

But a lot about the official ball is confidential, as The Wall Street Journal found.

The exact color of red used for the laces? Proprietary. The kind of wool that encases the cork-and-rubber center? Confidential. The number of balls that fail to meet quality-control standards? Don’t ask.

Like the secrecy surrounding the baseball, the Rawlings factory itself is a bit of an enigma. It’s Turrialba’s largest employer, but it’s closed to the public.

Since 2004, Rawlings Costa Rica has faced reports describing its low wages, long hours, and working conditions that cause repetitive-stress injuries like carpal tunnel.

More recently, workers have alleged Rawlings fires employees who get hurt on the job and “looks for reasons to fire employees without severance.” Rawlings has denied these allegations, and the 2004 report.

Each year, about 1.2 million baseballs made by Rawlings in Costa Rica pass inspection and receive a “pro” grade. They are shipped to the U.S., distributed to teams and rubbed in mud before being used in a game.

But every baseball has a brief working lifespan. During the 2019 season, Major League teams used about 1,140,000 balls — 160-ish per game, or one new ball every few pitches.

About 7,000 were hit for home runs and tens of thousands hit for foul balls, becoming free, Costa Rica-made souvenirs for the fans lucky enough to catch them.

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