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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Accept Apology or Not, but Only Sosa Knows

June 08, 2003|Thomas Boswell | Washington Post

On Sunday in Detroit, not knowing Sammy Sosa was about to get caught using a corked bat, Yankee Manager Joe Torre talked about cheating.

"I called all Lew Burdette's spitballs. Otherwise, I'd never have been able to catch them," said Torre, a catcher in the '60s. "But nobody on our team ever figured out how he did it. It was his secret.

"In the All-Star Game one year, I caught Bill Singer. We went over the signs -- fastball, curve. I asked him, 'What sign do you want for your spitter?' " said Torre. "He said, 'No sign. I'll just throw it off the fastball.' Meaning sometimes his fastball would be a fastball, sometimes a spitter.

"In the first inning, I went to the backstop to visit with Mayor (Robert) Wagner three times," said Torre, referring to wild pitches and passed balls. "Between innings, we worked out a signal for that spitter. Otherwise I wasn't going to catch any of 'em."

After these, and other cheating stories, Torre was asked, "Does anybody in baseball still cheat?"

"No," said Torre with a straight face.

No one? Not one person? "No one in baseball today cheats," said Torre.

"Thank you," we said. It was a masterful performance.

Now, however, we know that at least one person in baseball still cheats. Or at least he did Tuesday night when his corked bat shattered on a groundout and he was ejected from the game. Unfortunately for the sport, the cheater was Sammy Sosa -- perhaps the single most popular and marketable player in the game. He's every 10-year-old's hero. And that's the problem.

Baseball has 700 players who, if they get caught sandpapering a ball or juicing a bat, do no harm to anybody except themselves. And not much of that. They get suspended for seven to 10 days. They get mocked in the media from coast to coast. Their families are embarrassed. Their agents have to be talked in off the ledge because the player's endorsement deals just got cut in half -- if he's lucky. The guy's hero papers get revoked. In other words, the modest punishment fits the tacky crime. However, in time, the stigma fades. Eventually, it's just funny nostalgia. Like Torre, you tell it on yourself.

However, at any one time, there are a very few players -- you can count them on one hand, sometimes one finger -- who represent the game, who are its ambassadors and who, in most cases, have actively participated in the myth-making process that has raised them so high. Cal Ripken would be an example. Within the sport, they are held to a different standard. Of those to whom much is given, much is expected. Especially if you feed the hype.

Sosa is one of those rare guys. The sport is him and he is the sport. If he cheats, it's not lore. It's not funny. It's national news, right next to the Middle East road map for peace.

Sammy knows he messed up badly. He hurt his game. That's why he was so upset, and so honest, Tuesday night. He grasps that the issue isn't whether he took a corked bat to home plate one time or 1,000 times. It is the fact that he did it once and got caught red-handed. Maybe "by accident," as he says. But once is enough to raise doubt -- and not just about Sosa, but about baseball. If the most famous "good guy" cheats, then who doesn't? And if everybody does, or everybody might, that damages the product, the brand.

That's why Sosa said, "I apologize from the bottom of my heart." As well he should.

Luckily, it appears that all 76 Sosa bats that were confiscated by Major League Baseball and X-rayed Wednesday have shown no cork. Maybe Commissioner Bud Selig will go to Cooperstown and saw up the four bats Sosa has given to the Hall of Fame, like the one that hit homer No. 500.

Unfortunately, you can't prove a negative. You can examine a million clean Sosa bats and it doesn't prove there isn't a dirty one out there. Maybe he only had one corked bat at a time. Maybe he switched bats for the Hall of Fame and memorabilia guys. Conspiracy theorists are harder to exterminate than roaches. And now Sammy has stuck us with them for baseball eternity.

It hardly helps that Sosa's excuse rings lame. He says he only used the corked bat in batting practice to thrill fans with long home runs. In 28 years, I've heard plenty of discussion of corked bats in games. But I've never heard of anybody who used a corked bat in BP but not in games. It could happen.

Torre was asked about Sosa. "It's a dirty mark when you consider what he's accomplished. Even if he never used a corked bat (before), you'll never convince people of that. ... It's really unfortunate for the game," Torre said. "The most important thing for this game is to respect it.... I'm not saying (we) didn't used to try to get away with a spitball, do stuff like that, but this is unfortunate. What happened has taken a little off the game."

In other words, Gaylord Perry and Don Sutton can spit and scuff their way to 300 wins and, basically, nobody cares. It's their stigma, their choice. But they never approach the national stature that Sosa achieved in his '98 home run chase with Mark McGwire.

There's a famous expression: "It takes 30 years to build a reputation and only 30 seconds to destroy it." There's truth in that. But reputations aren't ruined so easily. Tarnished, maybe. Altered a bit. Put in dire need of time for repair. But, except for the rare unregenerate like Pete Rose, not destroyed.

A corked bat isn't a weapon of mass destruction. Let's get a grip.

As to the Truth About Sammy -- did he really cork just once? -- everybody wants to know, but only Sosa actually does. And that's never going to change. No matter what he says or how many bats are sawed.

So get used to it. And, eventually, get over it.

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