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Sosa's Bats Cleared, but His Image Isn't

'We all make mistakes,' the Cub slugger says, but this error may harm him and baseball.

June 05, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

An investigation into the bat scandal that rocked baseball provided a degree of vindication Wednesday for Chicago Cub slugger Sammy Sosa, but observers said Sosa's actions may have done irreparable damage to his reputation as one of baseball's most prodigious power hitters and one of the most marketable names in sports.

On Tuesday night, Sosa was ejected for using an illegally corked bat in a game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

X-rays taken Wednesday of the 76 bats belonging to Sosa that were confiscated by Major League Baseball after the incident showed no cork or foreign material, lending credence to Sosa's explanation that he inadvertently went to the plate with a bat he claims to have used three or four times during pregame batting practice to put on home run hitting shows for the fans.

"We're very confident that all those bats were clean and had no foreign substances in them," Sandy Alderson, baseball's executive vice president of operations, said at a Wrigley Field news conference. "This is consistent with Sammy's explanation of the incident Tuesday night."

Bob Watson, baseball's vice president for discipline, began his investigation Wednesday night, and Sosa is expected to be fined and suspended for using the illegal bat, perhaps as early as today. But his penalty is not expected to approach the 10-game suspension former Cleveland Indian outfielder Albert Belle received for using a corked bat in 1994. Belle's suspension was later reduced to seven games.

The X-rays also may minimize the damage for one of baseball's most popular players. In a recent Sports Business Daily poll, Sosa was ranked baseball's third-most marketable player behind New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter and Texas Ranger shortstop Alex Rodriguez. Sosa is a spokesman for MasterCard, ConAgra Foods, Armour Hot Dogs, Easton Sports and PepsiCo. But on Wednesday, the five-time All-Star was being skewered on television and radio stations across the country.

"I stood up [Tuesday] like a man, I took the blame, but the media made me out to be a criminal," Sosa said in a brief news conference before Wednesday's game. "I understand people can take things the wrong way, but I was compared to something out of this world. We're all human, we all make mistakes. Nobody is perfect."

In the first inning of the Cubs' 3-2 victory over Tampa Bay Tuesday night, Sosa's bat split as he hit a ground ball to second base. Devil Ray catcher Toby Hall showed a piece of the bat to home plate umpire Tim McClelland.

After examining the shard, McClelland ejected Sosa for using an illegally corked bat. The piece of the bat was confiscated for examination, and major league security officials then removed Sosa's other 76 bats from the Cub clubhouse.

Sosa was in the lineup Wednesday night, and was greeted by loud cheers when he did his traditional sprint to right field before the game. Fans were clearly on his side, with one holding up a sign that read, "Still loving Sammy." He got a standing ovation when he came to the plate in the first inning. But he struck out three times while going one for four in a 5-2 loss to Tampa Bay.

"I don't think he's worried about it," Cub Manager Dusty Baker said. "He has to worry, No. 1, about his own conscience. He goes to chapel with us every Sunday. I'm sure he's more concerned about his friends, family and how God feels about forgiving him."

There was more scorn than forgiveness earlier Wednesday. Sosa's now-infamous bat, the barrel of which shot past the Wrigley Field mound, wasn't the only thing that seemed shattered.

So, possibly, was Sosa's legacy, his reputation as one of baseball's most prodigious sluggers, his almost iconic status -- he's a fan favorite with an infectious smile, an ambassador of the game who has been called the patriarch of Dominican baseball -- and his Q-rating as one of professional sport's most marketable athletes.

"It certainly does put a shadow on all [Sosa's] accomplishments," said Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "And it sends an unfortunate message to fans and young players that cheating goes on at the highest levels of the game."

Tarnished, as well, was the Great Home Run Chase of 1998, when Sosa and former St. Louis Cardinal first baseman Mark McGwire developed a special kinship, marked by bear hugs, high-fives and playful fists to the stomach, during their pursuit of Roger Maris' single-season home run record, a summer of love that captured the hearts of millions and revitalized the game.

"For Sammy Sosa, for baseball, and for sports marketing, this is a disaster," Frank Vuono, co-founder of the New Jersey-based 16W Sports Marketing firm, told the Sports Business Daily.

"For Sammy, given his reputation has been built on not only hitting towering home runs but by his impeccable demeanor, getting caught cheating with his bat, no matter the alibi, ruins his credibility and taints him forever."

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