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Not Made in the USA: Rawlings

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The great American pastime gets offshored.

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"For starting pitchers we have two Dominicans, one Italian, one Mexican and one Japanese. In the bullpen we have a Venezuelan, a Mexican, a guy from the United States and a guy from St. Louis."
-- Los Angeles Dodger/Hall of Fame Manager Tommy Lasorda, August 18, 1999

It's common knowledge that some of baseball's best players aren't American. But what about baseballs themselves? It turns out they're about as American as gallo pinto, the Costa Rican national dish.

Rawlings, the official supplier of baseballs to Major League Baseball, was founded in 1887 by George and Alfred Rawlings -- two brothers who opened a small shop in St. Louis. Catering to quite a broad customer base, they referred to themselves as "Dealers in Fishing Tackle, Guns, Baseball, Football, Golf, Polo, Tennis, Athletic and General Sporting Goods."

In 1969, Rawlings moved its baseball-manufacturing plant from Puerto Rico to Haiti to take advantage of lower labor costs -- workers earned a whopping $0.09 per ball.

After the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier's dictatorship in 1986, Rawlings made the decision to exit the country, and it opened a plant in Turrialba, Costa Rica the following year.

It's a curious location. Even though the balls are made in Costa Rica, there's never been a single Major Leaguer who hailed from Costa Rica itself. With almost four million residents, Costa Rica has a mere 15 baseball fields. They do have a semi-pro baseball league, but approximately 75% of the players are from Nicaragua.

The materials that go into Rawlings baseballs are sourced from suppliers in the United States and shipped to Turrialba for assembly.

"We know how to make this toy, but we don't know how to play with it," Francisco Bermudez, a longtime manufacturing manager for Rawlings of Costa Rica told the Chicago Tribune.

Still, Rawlings is the official -- and since 1977 the sole producer of -- baseballs for the Major Leagues, Minor League baseball, and the NCAA.

The Rawlings plant in Turrialba operates in a Free Trade Zone, meaning it pays no corporate, province, city, or sales taxes, and is exempt from all import and export taxes. It imports baseball cores from the Muscle Shoals Rubber Company in Batesville, Mississippi, yarn from D&T Spinning in Ludlow, Vermont, and cowhide from Tennessee Tanning in Tullahoma, Tennessee.

Interestingly, the only major professional sports league in the US that uses American-made balls is the NFL, which gets them from a Wilson plant in Ada, Ohio -- population 5,500. (NBA basketballs are from China and hockey pucks come from Canada, Russia, the Czech Republic, China, and Slovakia.)

The Costa Rican Investment and Trade Development Board boasts of a "highly educated, versatile, and productive work force at only $1.40 per hour fully loaded."

This must be at least partially why companies like Motorola (MOT), Acer America, Panasonic (PC), Hitachi (HIT), Siemens (SI), Merck (MRK), Pfizer (PFE), Hanes (HBI), and Intel (INTC) choose Costa Rica as a manufacturing hub.

So, Costa Ricans don't know baseball. Does it matter?

Not at all.

"Take Me Out to the Ballgame" was written in 1908 by two men who didn't know anything about baseball either. One Jack Norworth penned the lyrics, while Albert Von Tilzer wrote the tune.

Tilzer attended his first ballgame in 1928.

Norworth, the lyricist, didn't see his first game until 1940.

Perhaps there should be an asterisk next to the credits?

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