CHICAGO — With one swing, Sammy Sosa shattered a bat and, perhaps, his image Tuesday night.
In the first inning of the Chicago Cubs' 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Sosa's bat splintered as he hit a ground ball to second base. Catcher Toby Hall retrieved the pieces and showed them to plate umpire Tim McClelland.
After huddling with his crew and inspecting the shards, McClelland ejected the Cub superstar for using an illegally corked bat, igniting a controversy that figures to linger for quite some time.
Sosa almost certainly will be suspended by Major League Baseball. He admitted that the bat had been corked and said he used it previously only in batting practice "to put on a show for the fans."
"I was just trying to go and get ready for the game, and I picked the wrong bat," Sosa said. "It's something that I take the blame for. It's a mistake, I know that. I feel sorry. I just apologize to everybody that are embarrassed."
Major league officials collected every bat in Sosa's locker and took them to an undisclosed place for further inspection. Sosa guaranteed they would not find another corked bat.
The ramifications of the incident are serious for both the Cubs' season and for Sosa's image. The Cubs are likely to be without their best player for a week or more, while fans wonder if the joyful right fielder might have used a corked bat during his epic 1998 home run race against Mark McGwire, or while hitting any of the 505 home runs in his career.
"I don't really need to use that," Sosa said. "I've been breaking so many bats in my life. I know I lost the fans and they have been great to me."
The Cub players and coaching staff listened in the clubhouse as Sosa explained his actions during a news conference in an adjacent room.
"I believe him," Manager Dusty Baker said. "You can only believe a man until he's proven wrong. In our society, you're supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. Things have gone the other way -- you have to prove your own innocence it seems like. It seems like guys are guilty no matter what. The way the umpires kept coming in and the way I heard the clubhouse was possibly surrounded, you'd have thought they were looking for the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list."
Sosa was alleged to have violated rule 6.06 (d), forbidding players to alter bats beyond major league specifications. McClelland said he saw a half-dollar sized piece of cork in the bat, about halfway down the barrel.
While conferring with his crew, he realized the magnitude of the incident, considering Sosa's immense popularity and good standing in the game.
"I didn't want to do it," he said. "But obviously the evidence was right there."
In corking a bat, a player typically drills a hole into the barrel head, fills it with the illegal material, glues a piece over the hole and sands it to make it look natural. A corked bat gives the player an advantage because it's lighter to handle and theoretically increases bat speed.
On Sept. 1, 1987, Houston outfielder Billy Hatcher, now a Tampa Bay coach, was handed a 10-day suspension by the National League after his illegally corked bat shattered during a game against the Cubs.
Cleveland's Albert Belle also was found to have used a corked bat against the White Sox at Comiskey Park on July 15, 1994. Belle received a 10-day suspension, but it was lowered to seven.