Corkgate! 

Cheating in baseball has a long tradition

Cheating in baseball has a long tradition

All this blather over Sammy Sosa’s illegally corked bat made me think for the first time in years of Gaylord Perry and realize how far baseball has fallen. My goodness, players don’t even know how to cheat anymore.

Back in the day, the great Perry was the foremost practitioner of the now obscure art of the spitball—a pitch that couldn’t have been hit with a corked bat, or an oar, for that matter. I’ll never forget seeing Perry pitch in person, on a hot night in 1978. He was already a legend and a sure bet for the Hall of Fame. The night I saw him, Gaylord was in fine form. He beat Detroit 15-3. He recorded five or six strikeouts, several on pitches whose sudden, eyebrow-raising breaks were visible even from the cheap seats behind the outfield wall.

Everybody in the stadium, including the umpires, could guess what those pitches were. Everybody knew that Gaylord’s curve and palm ball weren’t that good. Every time Gaylord would touch the bill of his cap, or run his finger behind his ear before going into his windup, everybody wondered if that might be the hidden source of the foreign substance that gave the spitball its illegal schwurve.

That Perry doctored the baseball was just barely less of an open secret than Liberace’s sexual orientation. But there is one enormous difference between Gaylord and Sammy. For all of his Smokey-and-the-Bandit brazenness, Gaylord never got caught.

Not that the umps didn’t try. They attempted everything short of a strip search on the mound and came up about as empty handed as our boys in Iraq poking around for Saddam’s tankers full of nerve gas. In the final insult, Gaylord had to write a book after he retired explaining to the umps how he hid the Vaseline.

I hope Bud Selig and his toad-boys aren’t planning to smash Gaylord’s bust in Cooperstown in response to the Official Media Shock over Sosa’s corked bat fiasco last week. But it wouldn’t surprise me, given the general tenor of things. Judging from the general reaction, you’d think Sammy had been caught with several kilos of coke instead of a few ounces of cork.

Selig suspended Sosa for eight games. Others, though, began questioning how many of Sosa’s more than 500 homers sprang from corked bats. A couple of Media Geniuses declared that, for the integrity of the game, Sammy should be banned like Pete Rose.

Maybe they missed a few chapters in the baseball history books. Otherwise, they’d have realized that Gaylord didn’t happen to invent the spitball while doing a school project on the uses of petroleum byproducts.

Gaining an advantage through slightly underhanded if not obviously illegal means—besides being more American than apple pie—has always been part of our national pastime. Ever since baseballs have been made with horsehide, pitchers have scuffed, greased and otherwise manipulated them into behaving erratically.

Batters have long applied pine tar above the permitted line on their bats. (The scandal was that, given the ubiquity of this bit of rule-breaking, George Brett was actually punished for the offense.) When Superballs flew out of Craig Nettles’ broken bat, he received no suspension at all, since officials hadn’t anticipated that particular innovation when devising their rules.

Even after baseball made bat-stuffing explicitly illegal, there has been no shortage of corkers, and for a simple reason. Cork, the theory ran, by making the bat lighter, made it possible for hitters to swing faster and drive the ball farther. Never mind that physics professors now tell us that the whole theory is about as credible as the idea that touching toads causes warts.

Not everyone, of course, tinkers with his bat. But all hitters, perhaps as some form of professional courtesy, methodically obliterate the back line of the batter’s box; that way, they can stand slightly farther from the pitcher and enjoy a slightly longer look at the pitch. It’s against the rules, but the umps pretend not to notice.

Players aren’t the only ones who fudge. At Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and other old ballyards with hand-operated scoreboards, the home team would post someone with binoculars to steal the visitor’s signs. Even groundskeepers get involved, cutting the grass to a particular length or contouring the dirt along the baselines in a particular way to take advantage of their team’s particular strength.

Even with rule-bending as a recurring theme in baseball’s past, the Sosa incident reveals more about us than about the grand old game. What was truly astonishing about the whole affair is not that a superstar might cheat but that no one believed him when he claimed cheating was not his intent.

And yet there are plenty of reasons to believe Sosa told the truth. It was all a mistake, he said. He always kept one corked bat around for batting practice so he could put on a long-ball show for the fans. For some reason, he grabbed the corked bat by mistake when he stepped to the plate in the first inning of a game against Tampa Bay.

Lo and behold, x-rays showed that none of Slingin’ Sammy’s other 76 bats contained anything but wood. Plus, it wasn’t like Sosa had never broken a bat before. None of that splintered lumber turned up with cork.

You might expect that a beloved player who had never before been caught breaking rules might receive the benefit of the doubt, particularly when evidence corroborated his story. Yet you could find more potential buyers for the Brooklyn Bridge than Americans who took Sammy at his word. In fact, many seemed to go beyond believing that Sosa had deliberately cheated this particular time; they assumed that he must have been cheating all along.

Such a mind-set says something about the cynicism of our culture. Nowadays, we assume that virtually no one rises to a professional pinnacle without some degree of dishonesty. Of course, who can blame us for thinking that way when there’s a corporate fraud du jour, Catholic bishops let predators run loose in the fold and even Martha Stewart gets indicted?

The Sosa incident says something, too, about our attention span and sense of perspective. We prefer the sensational scandals to larger ones buried below the surface.

We have no evidence that Sammy Sosa hit a single homer using an illegal bat. But we know from his own admission that, Sosa’s home run rival, Mark McGwire, used andro, a steroid-like substance, to bulk up his ability to reach the fences. In a real way, McGwire’s home run totals are more tainted than Sosa’s (assuming Sammy—and Barry Bonds, while we’re at it—aren’t artificially buffed as well).

From anecdotal reports, steroid use is common among major league ballplayers. Yet there is no coordinated outcry among fans to enforce a ban on performance-enhancing substances. The players union and owners agreed to a loophole-riddled testing policy, so they can pretend to have addressed the problem while avoiding the rigorous enforcement that might embarrass them by revealing the true extent of that problem.

So I’m for letting Sammy serve his time and then get back to taking his hacks. The pontificators can take Sosa’s corky bat and shove it, perhaps, in some obscure corner of the Hall of Fame, next to Gaylord’s jar of Vaseline.

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