Sammy Sosa’s sanity

How corking your bat is a lot like a Martha Stewart stock deal, but nothing like throwing a spitball.

Topics: Baseball, Infidelity,

Is Sammy Sosa a cheater? Are his considerable accomplishments tainted in the wake of Tuesday’s embarrassing corked-bat incident? Why’d he do it? Did he do it? What’s the big deal if he did do it? And what’s Martha Stewart got to do with it?

A baseball saying goes, “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t competin’,” and it’s safe to say that if competing has been going on longer than cheating has, it’s only by a matter of minutes. Cain beaned Abel, then said, “I was just pitching inside!”

Sosa insists he wasn’t cheatin’ Tuesday when he swung a corked bat in a game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Cubs slugger says he simply picked up the wrong bat, an honest mistake, revealed when the bat shattered as he hit a weak grounder to second.

We can believe him or not. No cork was found in the 76 bats baseball confiscated from him, so his story looks pretty good. On the other hand, it’s more fun not to believe him, and there’s still a nice little pile of circumstantial evidence arrayed against him.

For one thing, he’s been slumping badly this year, putting up numbers over his last 20 games or so that are usually associated with weak-hitting middle infielders. No one worships weak-hitting middle infielders. Very few Alex Cora posters hang on bedroom walls, and Neifi Perez hasn’t schmoozed the president. It’s widely believed among baseball players that putting cork in a bat makes the ball go farther. Perhaps Slumpin’ Sammy believed he needed a little edge to get his mojo back?

There’s also the lameness of Sosa’s excuse. He says he uses corked bats, which are illegal for games, in batting practice “to put on a show for the fans.” He somehow picked up one of those bats at game time.

It’s a little hard to believe that Sosa, a professional hitter of the highest caliber, isn’t aware of his own most important tool as he carries it to work. The guilty bat reportedly had a “C” marked on the barrel, which would seem to support Sosa’s story — you wouldn’t write “C” for cork on a bat if you were trying to hide the fact that it has cork in it — but if you had illegal bats around, wouldn’t you make them radically different from your regular bats, just to avoid confusion? If it’s just a batting practice bat, paint stripes on it.



And sure, 76 other bats were clean, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t know the one bat he used was dirty. We’re supposed to believe that the one and only time Sosa, oops, used the wrong bat, it split lengthwise, revealing the cork inside? Tough break.

All of this was being debated on Wednesday as Martha Stewart did her perp walk and got indicted in an insider stock trading case. As with Sosa, we don’t know whether Stewart, accused of unloading ImClone stock after being tipped off about a government ruling unfavorable to the biotech company, is guilty.

We do know this about both of them, though: If they’re guilty, they’re crazy.

Stewart allegedly made her stock deal to keep from losing $45,000. Last year her company reported $295 million in sales. Let’s say you have a nice job, you make $59,000 a year, just to pick a number. Are you going to do something that risks your livelihood and your reputation to avoid losing nine bucks? Because that’s the equivalent.

It’s the same with Sosa. He’s on his way to the Hall of Fame. A little local build-you-up just to tear-you-down media carping in Chicago aside, he’s a beloved figure in at least two countries, the United States and his native Dominican Republic. His poster hangs on countless bedroom walls. He schmoozes presidents. He’s going to risk his reputation, maybe even his smooth ride to Cooperstown, for the dubious benefits to be found in a corked bat?

“It’s weird,” said former teammate Mark Grace, now with Arizona. “Instead of hitting them 500 feet, he wants to hit them 550, I guess.”

Sosa may or may not have a questionable sense of right and wrong, but he almost certainly, like most people in and out of baseball, has a questionable sense of physics. The most generous thing anybody who’s studied corked bats has to say about them is that they increase the speed of a batted ball over uncorked bats by 1 percent. That was the conclusion of a study by the Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

Robert K. Adair, the Yale physics professor who wrote “The Physics of Baseball,” says he hasn’t seen that study, “and it’s wrong.” (Though he’s quick to add that “they do great work” in Lowell.) He says a corked bat is lighter, which gives the hitter the same benefit a legal lighter bat would, greater bat speed. “But it’s not different than if he would have, say, choked the bat up three-quarters of an inch,” he says.

On ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” Tuesday, Bobby Valentine explained the baseball layman’s view of the science of corked bats, describing how the cork compresses on contact, then springs back to its original shape, giving the ball an extra push as it leaves the bat.

“That doesn’t work at all,” Adair says. “The energy transfer from the bat to the ball takes about one two-thousandths of a second, and the cork just doesn’t react that fast. So the cork does nothing on driving the ball.” In fact, he says, because the cork has weight that has to be swung, but does nothing to improve power, it actually does more harm than good. “That is, if you don’t put any cork in your corked bat, you’ll have a little better bat than if you put cork in.” When I asked Adair if there might be a material that would work better than cork, he laughed and said, “Well, you could use wood!”

But even Valentine, with his overly enthusiastic view of the benefits of cork, said that Sosa should be punished by having a mere three of his 505 career home runs taken away.

Others aren’t so sanguine about Sosa’s legacy. Bill Madden, fulminating in a New York Daily News column, argued that “unless he can somehow prove otherwise, Sammy Sosa is a fraud and all of his home runs are now tainted.” Madden called for baseball to examine four bats that Sosa used to hit historic home runs in 1998 that are now at the Hall of Fame, “and, if it turns out any of those were corked, Sosa should be banned from baseball for life and all his home runs be expunged from the record books.”

Well golly, why don’t we just string him up while we’re at it. Imagine if he’d actually done something that gave him an advantage!

It’s funny how corking a bat is looked upon as an evil act, cheating, destroying the credibility of the game and the legacy of the corker, yet a pitcher loading up the baseball is looked upon as practicing gamesmanship. Especially since doctoring up a baseball, unlike corking a bat, has a provable effect on the play of the game. It was a secret to no one that Gaylord Perry threw spitters, greaseballs and all manner of slobbery for his entire career. “The league will be a little drier now, folks,” he famously said when he retired.

Somehow the game survived and so did Perry’s place in history. He breezed into the Hall of Fame, the lovable old coot who doctored up the ball. “I reckon I tried everything on the old apple but salt and pepper and chocolate sauce topping,” he said. Boy howdy! Pitchers as great as Sosa is a hitter are routinely accused of doctoring the ol’ pill. The Hall of Fame would practically have to be drained if pitchers guilty of throwing spitters after it was made illegal in 1920 were deemed unworthy.

Sammy Sosa’s legacy will probably survive this incident. No one of his stature has ever been nabbed red-handed before, but some pretty good players have either confessed or been caught with illegal bats. Graig Nettles once broke his bat and a bunch of superballs bounced out. If you even know who Graig Nettles is, do you remember that or his fielding in the 1978 World Series? Do you think first of Norm Cash and Albert Belle as guys who swung corked bats? I don’t.

Sosa will probably have to put up with cork jokes for years, but I doubt that anyone serious about baseball will believe that his records are tainted because he corked a bat. He’ll take his suspension, apologize some more, and it’ll pretty much blow over.

Now, if those steroid rumors turn out to be true, Sammy’s reputation won’t be worth two shares of Martha Stewart Living stock.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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