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Friday, June 6, 2003
Updated: June 7, 3:23 PM ET
Criticism of Sosa way off base

By Peter Gammons
Special to

June 6

Sammy Sosa made a mistake, one of judgement. We don't know that he wasn't telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth when he said it was an accident, but we all may wonder just as we wondered when Graig Nettles broke a bat full of superballs and claimed that a fan gave it to him and that he'd never used it before. Although the fact that Joe Morgan -- whose integrity has and never will be called into question -- admits that he once accidently used a corked bat, makes one pause and wonder further.

Sammy Sosa
It's been a tumultuous last few days for Sammy Sosa.

Sosa used the corked bat, but unlike Wilton Guerrero in 1997, he went back into the dugout as if he never thought about what might be lying on the ground. That said, he broke the rules, he admitted it, he will serve the suspension once Fox, ESPN and the Yankees leave town.

And while there is vast media overkill on this topic, whether or not he was worried about his post-beaning slump or his decline in home run rate (one per 10.1 plate appearances from '98 through last Aug. 17, 23.6 since), the use of the bat was an exercise in very bad judgement.

And that's because he's Sammy Sosa, not Billy Hatcher or Wilton Guerrero, and Sammy Sosa is not only the most recognizable face in baseball, not to mention the highest paid off the field.

For that bad judgement, he will pay a price, not only in terms of taking his bat out of the Cubs lineup in the middle of a pennant race, but his image has taken a hit that might cost him some price in terms of endorsement dollars; of course, if he keeps hitting home runs every 25 at-bats, a 20-25 home run season may curb the enthusiasm of the Pepsi people.

But every one of his bats the league office could find have been x-rayed. Bats that were used for a number of historic homers were x-rayed in Cooperstown, as was the historic bat displayed at Harry Caray's restaurant. The one used to hit career home run No. 498 was sawed in half right on ESPN.

Not one smoking gun was found and there is no evidence that this was anything but either a mistake in either recognition or judgement. Lord knows people have tried to further the story, but we have no proof that he hit any homers with an illegal bat. Therefore, he must be presumed innocent.

Sammy was right when he said he felt as if he were a criminal, and he's not. He's a terrific guy. He plays hard. When Mark McGwire was hitting his 70 homers in 1998 and clearly not enjoying the spotlight, Sammy ran up alongside him and helped him to the finish, not just in terms of competition, but in terms of making it all fun. For that, baseball took it's greatest jump in putting the strike that cancelled the World Series behind the American public.

Sosa cares about fans, he cares about people, he's respectful to the media, and he's worth the price of admission every day he runs out to right field.

Sammy Sosa is going into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, and when he does, he will be remembered not for a serious mistake in judgement, but for all he did for the game he loves and the fans who love him.

This is not an American president looking into the camera and blatantly lying. This is not a Harvard student being dismissed for cheating, or later driving a car with a female companion into the ocean; and he recovered to introduce and enact more legislature that any man in the history of the U.S. Senate. This isn't the managing editor of the New York Times perpetrating and promoting serious fraud. This is not a major league manager betting on his team's games.

This is hitting a ground ball to second base with a corked bat. We can split the difference between Yale physicist Robert Adair and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell tests and grant that a properly corked bat can add 4-10 feet to balls hit 400 feet; it's not about the cork, it's about weight, balance and bat speed, and the bat manufacturers will tell you that they can cup the end of the bat, use the right wood and make you a 34 inch/31 ounce bat that will virtually serve the same purpose (and that the reason so many more bats were corked in the 70s and 80s is because the bats weren't as lithe and light).

Does a corked bat really alter the game? Negligibly.

The day after George Brett's famous homer in Yankee Stadium was overturned because he had too much pine tar on his bat, American League president Lee MacPhail learned that the rule was enacted in 1957 by parsimonious Senators owner Calvin Griffith because he felt too many players were using too much pine tar, ruining batting practice baseballs and costing him too much petty cash.

"The intent of the rule," said MacPhail, one of the game's greatest leaders, "does not warrant altering the outcome of a game." The next day, he overturned the ruling.

So perhaps the corked bat doesn't warrant such a punishment. Does it dramatically alter the game any more than pitchers who use saliva, K-Y jelly, belt buckles, pine tar, catcher's shin guards, resin, sandpaper, nail files or slippery elm tablets to alter the flight of the ball?

I voted for four pitchers for the Hall of Fame that I suspect doctored baseballs at different times in their careers. They all made it. Now, there are people like Mike Flanagan -- who had a great spitter on the side, but refused to throw it in games because of the integrity of the game -- who refused to cheat. Their peers, and the game, essentially looked the other way.

In 1980, I wrote a story for the Boston Globe with catcher Dave Rader on corking a bat, and he admitted on the record that there was a guy in Clearwater, Fla. that corked bats for many members of those great Phillies' teams, for which Rader had played. Howard Johnson and four other Mets were caught with corked bats in St. Louis by Cardinals then-manager Whitey Herzog.

Mediates who speculate about steroid use or extensive cheating by Sosa -- or anyone else -- without knowing are replacing knowledgable opinion for speculation, and this week, before bats had been tested or we had any answers, we were besieged with speculation whose shrapnel badly wounded Sosa when he had been ejected for cheating as many times as Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry. There's no proof that Sammy has been an habitual cheater, and until there is, that's the end of this story.

Sammy Sosa is going into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, and when he does, he will be remembered not for a serious mistake in judgement, but for all he did for the game he loves and the fans who love him.