Sports Nut

Is Sammy Lying?

Weighing the evidence in the corked-bat caper.

Sammy Sosa
Sosa: whither the whiffer?

Sammy Sosa got caught playing with a corked bat last night. Sportswriters are riffing on the damage done to Sammy the Player, Sammy the Man, Sammy the Bull, and the doe-eyed youngsters sitting in the Wrigley bleachers—but, hey, we’ve got more important things to settle first. Such as, is Sammy lying?

In his post-game confessional, Sosa admitted to owning the flubberized bat but said he intended to use it only during batting practice. Somehow, the bat slipped into the dugout, and when Sammy faced Tampa Bay starter Jeremi Gonzalez in the first inning, contact shattered it into a hundred pieces. Baseball has yet to mete out a suspension, but one guesses it will fall somewhere in the range of seven to eight games, the amount slapped on fellow corkers Chris Sabo, Albert Belle, and Wilton Guerrero. If Sammy’s telling the truth, that punishment seems about right. If not, well, the Detroit Tigers could always use another outfielder.

There’s one way to tell for sure if Sammy’s explanation is bunk. Baseball officials seized the slugger’s unused bats, too—if more turn up hollow, we can probably assume Sosa is fibbing. But until then, we’re left with sports-radio level rumor, speculation, and innuendo. So let’s sort through the evidence, pro and con:

Sammy is in a big, big slump. Without a doubt, Sosa is having his worst season in years. He has only six home runs, on pace for a season total of 17—a good year for, say, Julio Franco, but far short of the 56 he’s averaged the past few years. He also has a gruesome foot injury. An irritation of his big toe caused it to swell to nearly twice its normal size; Sosa eventually had his toenail sliced off, a procedure that compares in pain (I’m told) with a probing of the groin region. Power hitters can lose their mojo very, very quickly, and there were whispers before last night that Sammy might have hit the wall. None of this proves he knowingly picked up a loaded bat, of course, but it’s a pretty good motive.

Sammy didn’t try to hide the evidence. An oft-cited piece of evidence pointing to Sosa’s innocence. Sammy’s dribbler to the right side of the infield caused his bat to explode, allowing umps to see the incriminating cross-section. If Sosa knew he had a loaded bat, wouldn’t he have scooped up the pieces on the trot back to the dugout? By ignoring them, Sosa behaved like an innocent man.

It’s not a bad theory, except that a) Sosa vacuuming up his own bat might have drawn the attention of the umpires (isn’t that a job for bat boys?) and b) his grounder drove home Mark Grudzielanek from third, and Sosa might have been so focused on the game that he forgot about the bat entirely.

Baseball players obsess over their bats. Ballplayers often give more care and comfort to their bats than they do their wives. Any change in the weight, grip, or appearance is instantly noted; presumably a lighter, corked bat would look and feel different than Sammy’s regular model. Yet Sammy asks us to believe that he selected the tainted bat from the dugout, waved it around in the on-deck circle, then trudged to the plate and never noticed the difference. Sorry, Sammy, that doesn’t wash.

Sammy was already under observation. Sportswriters have looked warily at Sosa for years now, ever since he put on 65 pounds and started murdering the ball. In his first nine seasons, he never topped 40 home runs; in the last five, he has hit 66, 63, 50, 64, and 49. Of course, the writers suspected Sosa of using steroids, not corking bats. Sosa replied that if the league ever mandated regular urine tests, he would be the “first in line” to take one.

Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly took him up on the offer last June, handing him the address of a Chicago lab before a game. Sosa replied: “You’re not my father! Why do you tell me what to do? Are you trying to get me in trouble?” Sosa later explained he had a tender wisdom tooth during his first few seasons, which made it hard for him to eat and gain weight. No one ever proved that Sammy used a banned substance—nor would that prove anything about corked bats—so Sports Nut remains unconvinced by this theory.

Sammy wants you to love him. In his post-game confessional, Sosa told reporters that he used the corked bat “just to put on a show for the fans. I like to make people happy, and I do that in batting practice.” In other words, Sammy wanted to reward Wrigley die-hards who show up three hours before the first pitch by placing a few more baseballs in the cheap seats. There’s something very revealing about that: Namely, that Sammy takes an unusual interest in pleasing his fans. This year’s trip to the disabled list (his first since 1996) clearly troubled Sosa; when he returned to the club, he said of his fans, “They love me. You know they will respond.”

Problem is, he gave them little to respond to. He had two hits in 15 at-bats, including a five-strikeout honker against the Houston Astros. He had yet to hit a home run. So here’s a man who so desperately wants to be liked that he’ll risk his career to give away a few souvenirs during batting practice. Is it such a stretch that the man would look down at his magic bat and think, you know, why don’t I give them a few more during the game?

[Update, 5:40 p.m.: Minutes after this item was posted, Major League Baseball announced that the 76 bats it seized from Sosa last night turned out to be cork-free. What we still don’t know, however, is whether Sosa purposefully used a corked bat in the game last night. Consider the evidence above and post your opinion in “The Fray.”]