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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Speed Zone

Jeff Passan Knight Ridder Newspapers

Sly guys. They do it so covertly, adjusting their hats or wiping their brow on a small swath of jersey or digging in their cleats so they seem as if they’re doing something else when they sneak the quickest of glances.

For one inning, watch a pitcher. At least once, he will peer out of the corner of his eye and look at the stadium’s radar-gun reading. Every one of them does it – some to stroke their egos and others to gauge the separation between their fastball and change-up.

“I look at almost every pitch,” Dodgers starter Brad Penny said.

“Every so often,” Royals closer Mike MacDougal said.

“Once or twice in my career,” Astros closer Brad Lidge said, chuckling.

Yet count each – and almost all of their peers – as skeptics about the guns’ accuracy. Early in his career, a few guns read that MacDougal’s fastball hit 100 mph. Lidge’s slider occasionally registers in the low 90s. Depending on the ballpark, Penny’s fastball will range from 92 mph to 97 mph.

New cases pop up all the time, none more indicative than Pittsburgh’s PNC Park on May 31. Florida starter A.J. Burnett, known for a fastball that occasionally touches triple-digits, unleashed a heater that read 104 mph on the scoreboard. The Pirates turned off the gun before you could say “bogus.”

All of this disparity from a machine that costs about $1,000 and could judge the difference between a 10-cent and million-dollar pitcher?

“That’s why when you get pulled over driving,” Penny said, “you think, ‘Hey, that might not be right.’”

Radars used by stadiums – and, more often, baseball scouts – are the same as those police use, only with a range of 200 feet instead of one mile. When the trigger is squeezed, the gun emits a microwave, captures the pitcher’s release point and aims to measure the maximum velocity, which actually is about 1 foot from where the pitcher lets go of the ball. The ball enters the beam’s range, computes a few measurements – in this case, rate times time equals distance, thus proving math teachers were correct when they said the subject had real-life applications – and spits out a reading.

Whether it’s accurate, no one can guarantee. JKP Sports sells the JUGS gun – which, along with Stalker Radar’s sport guns, control the market – and says it’s accurate plus or minus 1 mph.

Most guns come with a tuning fork to ensure that the reading is accurate. Tweak that a bit, and it’s easy to see how Dennis Quaid threw in the mid-90s in the movie, “The Rookie.”

“We hear an awful lot about 10-year-olds throwing 85,” said Greg Anderson, a JUGS salesman with JKP. “The sources aren’t always reliable.”

With reliability being paramount, curiosity was piqued about the radar gun at Kauffman Stadium. Longtime Royals scout Art Stewart sits in the front row, directly behind home plate, a Stalker Sport mounted in front of him so he can track every pitch thrown. Two other guns stand next to Stewart’s: a Stalker Sport used for RSTN and the JUGS gun that provides the scoreboard reading.

In a small sample taken last week – 27 pitches between the Royals’ two hardest throwers, MacDougal and rookie Ambiorix Burgos – more than half of the pitches drew the same reading on all three guns. When the numbers differed, the scoreboard’s JUGS gun tended to read 1 mph faster.

“If it’s off by a mile an hour or two,” MacDougal said, “it really doesn’t make that much of a difference.”

Don’t tell that to Steve Dalkowski.

He necessitated the radar gun in baseball. A career minor-leaguer in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the 5-foot-11 left-hander is believed to be the hardest thrower in baseball history. Dalkowski never made the majors because, while he struck out 1,396 in 995 innings, he also walked 1,354.

Before the days of hand-held guns, the Army invited Dalkowski to the Aberdeen Proving Ground a day after he had started. Without a mound to push off, Dalkowski was clocked at almost 94 mph. Factor in at least 5 mph for a fresh arm and another 5 mph for a mound, and Dalkowski could have come close to what he believes he reached.

“I threw about 110 mph,” Dalkowski said Saturday from his New Britain, Conn., home. “It helps a lot if you can throw hard. Of course, you need to throw strikes.”

Really, that’s what matters. What good is a 98-mph fastball if hitters tattoo it? Who cares if Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball flutters at 60 mph if it lands on the plate?

“Look, it’s not a good way to judge how you’re throwing,” Lidge said. “Sometimes you might not be throwing as hard and guys are missing your fastball, and others you might be throwing harder and they’re seeing it.

“If you find yourself constantly looking at the gun, you’re going to struggle.”

Some pitchers just can’t help themselves. For so many years, it’s pounded into their head: throw hard, throw hard, throw hard. And it’s right there for them to see, to appreciate, to marvel at.

Just as long as no one notices.

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