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Put a Cork in It
Sammy Sosa and baseball today.


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In the last week, Martha Stewart was indicted, Howell Raines was forced to resign, and Hillary Clinton published her side of the story. Pretty good for the summer season, when things are ordinarily kind of slow.

Stories such as these get squeezed like an orange at the Tropicana plant and after a couple of days, there isn’t much left to say. You get bored with it and tell yourself that you need a little relief so you go to the sports pages where you learn — Sammy Sosa got caught cheating. In the universe of sports this is big. Not quite Hillary, but certainly up there with Howell and Martha.

What happened is this: Sosa came up for his first at-bat against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays last Tuesday night and grounded out. When he hit the ball, his bat shattered, revealing that the center had been hollowed and filled with cork.

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This is against the rules because, supposedly, it allows hitters to get more bat speed when they swing and, thus, hit more home runs.

The rule is exceedingly clear on this point. The logic for it, less so.

Contemporary big-league baseball is all about homeruns. Many, many players lack either the fundamental skills or the want-to of the old timers. They loaf down the base paths after a routine fly ball, do not know how to lay down a bunt, and can’t hit the cut-off man.

What they know how to do, better than the old timers is go out on strike and hit homeruns. In some ways, the one follows the other and neither is, ultimately, good for the game.

When the players came back after the last strike — there was a lot of public agonizing over how the players and “the game” should go about winning back the affection of the fans. There were some who said, essentially, “Don’t bother.” Still, baseball got lucky and came up with a homerun contest between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Going by the breathless accounts in the papers and on the box, it might have been a mano a mano between a couple of fearless bullfighters. McGwire wound up hitting 70 and Sosa got 66. Remarkable…except that a couple of seasons later, Barry Bonds got 73. One of these days, somebody will flirt with 100.

A few soreheads theorized that the baseballs might be “juiced.” Wound tighter, that is, to make them fly further. They also pointed out that if the balls weren’t juiced, then the players surely were. They were bigger than they were supposed to be and it wasn’t because of the way their mothers were feeding them. This was a case of better living — and slugging — through chemistry.

Steroids.

No player says he takes steroids and baseball never tested. There is a preliminary survey being done this year and if it establishes that five percent of the players tested are using, then all players will be checked in 2004. Sosa, who is suspiciously bulked-up, denies he uses juice but he has not volunteered to be tested. He also denies using corked bats except in batting practice. What happened last week, he says, was a mistake.

He also says the media is treating him like a “criminal.” And he has supporters who say the whole affair is poisoned by … all together now, racism.

Well, the broken bat was corked and that is true even if Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott say it is. None of Sosa’s other 76 bats — all of which were confiscated and x-rayed — had been tampered with. Honest mistake, Sosa and his supporters say. Give the man a break.

Of course, he would have to be a fool to cork all of his bats. He can only use one bat at a time and you’d think that a major-league slugger — one of the greatest homerun hitters in the game (so far) — would know when he picked it up, whether a bat was legal lumber or not. Having just one bat of 77 corked is an alibi in advance of getting caught.

Sosa is a very likeable major-league ballplayer who runs on the field and plays with a kind of exuberance that is increasingly rare in the age of the surly superstar. He was suspended for eight games. He has appealed the suspension and is still playing — but not very well. Baseball purists are lamenting that the corked-bat episode casts a pall over all of his statistics. In baseball, the numbers are as sacred text.

Of course, there are Hall-of-Fame pitchers whose best pitch was an illegal “spitball.” In its infancy, Sports Illustrated ran an article by one “Preacher” Rowe who used to hurl for the Dodgers and was a master at loading up the ball. Rowe told readers exactly how he concealed the stuff that he would use to doctor the ball. (Most spitball pitchers used some kind of grease, not saliva, to make the ball do tricks.) There was a little huffing and puffing among the baseball faithful, but most thought that Rowe’s story revealed a charming aspect of the game. There is a phrase you hear among athletes: “If you are going to cheat … then, cheat neat.”

When Sosa’s bat shattered, the cork was right there for all the world to see. Too bad. But he was playing the game that baseball has become. The highlight game. Big homeruns, diving catches, beanball brawls, Lou Pinella-like arguments with the umpire. Give them what they want to see and the fans will come out to the ballpark. Last night, when the Cubs played the Yankees at Wrigley Field, the place was packed and the game was broadcast over ESPN.

Sosa did not hit a homerun.

And, oh yes, the Cubs won.

— Geoffrey Norman writes on sports for NRO and other publications.



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