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We All Know It's Only a Game, but Still ... Say It Ain't Sosa

June 05, 2003|Roger Kahn | Roger Kahn's latest book is "October Men: Reggie Jackson, George Steinbrenner, Billy Martin and the Yankees' Miraculous Finish in 1978" (Harcourt, 2003).

The first and somewhat primitive reaction to the great and ongoing Sammy Sosa corked-bat affair is harsh laughter. The principal in this episode is not an ethicist. He is a thick-necked professional athlete playing a children's game for millions and millions of dollars. Like other sporting characters going back more than a century, when Sammy Sosa hauled his corked bat up to home plate he was saying, in effect, "Don't bother me with rules, baby. I'm here to win." (I know Sosa said it was all a mistake. That is his right, as it is mine and yours not to accept his explanation.) But before we pass judgment, we should remember that cheating in baseball is about as old as the game itself.

In "Pitching in a Pinch," Christy Mathewson, the stellar old New York Giant pitcher, tells an intriguing tale of baseball dishonesty dating from 1899. That season, Mathewson reports, the Philadelphia Phillies stationed an observer in the clubhouse beyond center field. He was armed with binoculars, so he could see the opposing catcher's signs, and with a Western Union "bug" to transmit electrical impulses. A wire ran under the playing field all the way to the third-base coach's box. There, the Phils coach stationed a shoe over a designated spot and picked up vibrations. One buzz, fastball. Two buzzes, curve. Line drives followed.

"One day after a rainstorm," Mathewson recalled, "there was a big puddle in the Philadelphia box, but the coach, Cupid Childs, stood with one foot in the puddle although the water came up to his shoe laces. Between innings visiting players, already suspicious, began pawing in the dirt and water and found a square chunk of wood with a buzzer on the under side." Up came a wire, which led the ballplayers clear through the outfield to the clubhouse 450 feet away. There the sign stealer, one Morgan Murphy, looked up from his field glasses and said, "I guess you've got the goods."

Mathewson remembered that "the newspapermen got a big laugh, but the National Commission [which then supervised baseball] intimated that any team using such tactics would be subjected to a heavy fine and possible expulsion from the league."

Buzzers vanished, but sign stealing with binoculars is said to have persisted at least through 1951. In that year, according to a later Giant, catcher Sal Yvars, an operative in center field tipped off Bobby Thomson that the Dodger pitcher, Ralph Branca, was about to throw a fastball. Thomson homered, the Giants won the pennant and a significant portion of old Brooklyn wept.

Other episodes of big-league cheating rush to mind. Before the advent of resin bags, pitchers dried their hands in the dirt around the pitcher's mound. One manager had his ground crew sow soap flakes in most of the dirt. The home pitcher knew just where the undoctored earth was. Visitors came up with soapy fingers.

Want to slow down a speedy visiting team? Over-water the basepaths. Damp dirt slows down everyone. Have some great bunters on your side? Manicure the earth so the foul lines slope inward. That will keep many a good but borderline bunt in fair territory. Whenever Hank Aaron slid safely into second after hitting a double, Jackie Robinson leaned on him and shoved infield dirt into his shoes. "Maybe cost him a half step," Robinson told me years later through an innocent smile. (Aaron could have called time and cleaned his shoes, but he was too proud to do so.)

Much of this stuff is amusing. A ballgame is, after all, only a ballgame, less critical to our future than nuclear proliferation, and we should be wary about taking it or ourselves too seriously. Yet after the laughter, something about Sosa's corked bat lingers on and ceases to be funny.

Just because you can cheat in baseball obviously doesn't mean you should. I retain from childhood some idealized concepts of a major leaguer that include such elements as honesty and integrity. Cheating at the bat by one of the great home-run hitters of our era is, to put this quietly, disillusioning.

Sosa had appeared to be a model modern ballplayer, hard-working in the field as well as at bat, appreciative of his fans and appropriately proud of his Latino heritage. Now sadly I find myself echoing the words of the boy who found out that Shoeless Joe Jackson had taken gamblers' money to help throw the 1919 World Series. "Say it ain't so." Jackson's response then is about the only one appropriate for Sosa today. Shoeless Joe wept.

X-rays of 76 other Sosa bats show no evidence of cork. But pending a complete inquiry, I have to list Sosa now with another great ballplayer who wouldn't follow rules: Pete Rose. Let's hope the lords of baseball deliberate with great care as they seek a punishment that fits the great cork crime.

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