To cheat or not to cheat?

Sammy Sosa got caught this week with a corked bat.
For you baseball less-than-afficianados, corking a bat is the process of drilling out the center of a baseball bat, plugging the hole with cork or some other light material, then patching the top. The idea is to lighten the bat so you can swing it harder and hopefully hit the ball further.

It’s illegal. It’s said not to do any good (the loss of mass makes up for what you gain in batspeed). But people do it anyway.

Major League Baseball has examined 76 of Sosa’s bats and found none were corked. Sosa said he used this bat in batting practice to put on a home run show. I believe him. The question is, did he also bring out this bat during crucial moments of games, when the Cubs needed a longball?

We’ll probably never know the answer to that question. But I’ll bet the majority of people suspect he did. I sure do.

Baseball has a bit of a double-standard when it comes to cheating though. When hitters cheat, it puts a black mark on careers. Nobody remembers Billy Hatcher, except for his corked bat incident. Slightly more people remember Graig Nettles. Albert Belle had a terrible reputation, made worse by his use of a corked bat.

What about pitchers? It’s illegal to doctor baseballs, but it’s been known for ages that if you interfere the ball’s aerodynamics, pitches do crazy things. So pitchers long ago started inventing ways to rough up baseballs.

Gaylord Perry was so well-known for throwing greaseballs, he approached Vasoline about doing an endorsement. (Their response: “We soothe babies’ asses, not baseballs.”) He’s in the Hall of Fame. Don Sutton’s nickname was “Black and Decker.” It’s been said that when Perry and Sutton first met, Perry handed Sutton a tube of Vasoline, and Sutton thanked him and handed him a piece of sandpaper. Sutton’s in the Hall of Fame too.

The only thing I can think of is that virtually every shift in the game–the liveliness of the ball, the height of the pitcher’s mound, the size of the strike zone–has been in the batter’s favor, rather than the pitcher’s. So when it comes to cheating, it’s harder to blame the pitcher.

Sammy Sosa has weight training, a lively ball, a smaller-than-a-Sports-Illustrated-swimsuit strike zone, a tiny ballpark, and hours and hours of videotape of every pitcher in the league going for him. During his chase of Roger Maris’ homerun record, he developed an image as a good boy.

That’s gone now.

But he’s no more of a cheater than Perry or Sutton. And let’s face it. The physics say hitting home runs with a corked bat doesn’t work. Sosa does it. He has a skill. Perry and Sutton were skilled as well. They just happened to be better at doctoring baseballs than they were at throwing them, it would appear.

So he’s still a good baseball player. Overrated, but talented. How is Sammy Sosa, the man? The jury’s still out there. But I’d still rather tell a kid to be like Sammy Sosa than to be like Pete Rose.

11 thoughts on “To cheat or not to cheat?

  • June 5, 2003 at 10:11 am
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    I’m just glad George W. Bush, then one of the owners of the Rangers, traded him to the Cubs. We wouldn’t want this bad mark on our team. 😉

    Of course, Dubya still owes the city of Arlington, Texas about $7.5 million dollars that he will probably never pay… helping taxpayers, indeed.

  • June 5, 2003 at 10:12 am
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    The older I get, the more disillusioned I become. Money motivates these actions. Society now encourages the pursuit of riches under any circumstance even to the point of losing one’s soul.
    The mere thought of letting Pete Rose back into baseball shows a total disregard for the fans. Crooked players, that go unpunished, will create a wrestling atmosphere of unreality.

  • June 5, 2003 at 11:01 am
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    I heard one of the local talk show hosts commenting on the Sosa situation this morning. He asks why we would believe MLB when they say they found no other corked bats. After all, this is the organization that’s unwillingly to admit the obvious facts that players are juicing themselves up on steroids (hmm, Sosa’s name is mentioned around that topic, too), and there’s *obviously* some juicing going on with the balls. And if we are to believe Sosa’s story that he accidentally picked up a bat that he would otherwise have recognized as his “practice bat”, are we to expect that he didn’t do that any other time? How would *he* even know if he missed it this time, eh? Oh, yeah, corked bats are *lighter* than normal bats. Hmm… Gee, wouldn’t that be, oh I dunno, *obvious* with a few practice swings?

    This commentator also argued that Selig will give Sammy a token suspension, but it’s a travesty that the commish hasn’t reinstated Pete Rose. His logic is that Rose was never proven to have cheated – thrown a game, used illegal equipment, etc. – while Sosa obviously did. In his mind, gambling on baseball is OK as long as you didn’t influence gamnes you bet on, I guess.

    My opinion? Sosa knew. His sweet boy image (ask the kids who *don’t* get his autograph because “I’m working” if he’s as nice as when the cameras are on) doesn’t hold up. He can play the naivety angle all he wants: a major leaguer knows (or *should* know) his equipment. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I wouldn’t put it past baseball to protect Sosa here. After all, he has all of those records that brings in the bucks, er, fans. And those confiscated those bats disappeared from view *awfully* fast.

    No doubt he’s got hand-eye coordination, but hitting the sweet spot on a bat has a hell of a lot to do with how far a ball goes. And I’d think a lighter bat is easier to control, making hitting the sweet spot more likely, no?

    Whether he’s better or worse than Rose is moot to me. I think he cheated. I’m sure Selig will do little about it. And baseball will become even more of a sham.

  • June 5, 2003 at 1:09 pm
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    Of course, my previous comment about bat weight shows my complete ignorance of just how much wood is drilled out of a bat when it’s corked. Still, Sosa should have marked his bat if it was “only” a BP bat. Why wouldn’t he make it obvious to avoid just this situation?

    SI.com has an interesting op piece on the deal.

  • June 5, 2003 at 6:33 pm
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    As an Australian and a follower of cricket, we have the same problem of cheating, but mainly with our bowlers.

    As with baseball, manipulating the surface of the ball can be very adventageous to the bowler, the ball swings further (out or in) for the fast bowlers and spins better fort he slow bowlers (with their flippers and googly’s).

    And no-one seems to care all that much, they are caught and punished (usually a suspension of a couple of matches, maybe a token fine) and are back in the swing of it. So to speak.

    The batsmen have no equivelant of a corked bat (although some-one once tried to play with a aluminuin one) as the bats must stand up to (potentially) days of batting. So they just resort to questioning the bolwers parentage and other such abuse (we call it sledging).

    Myself, I can’t understand why you would want to antogonise a bowler capable of hurling a bouncer (a technique which results in the ball ‘bouncing’ of the batsmen head, perfectly legal!!) at close to 100mph!!! Still they are the ones getting paid…

    Still, even Sammy Sosa made the local sports news in Australia and we dont give a sh*t about baseball, either here or overseas…

    Love your work..

    Jimbo

  • June 5, 2003 at 9:57 pm
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    I still think that Sammy is a mostly likeable guy, though no saint. But given the way that most big leagers treat their bats, one of the main tools of their trade, I think it highly unlikely that Sammy picked up the one corked bat on hand by accident.

    I’ve heard the idea that corked bats may not add distance, don’t know how true that is. Even if they do add distance, there is the argument that Sammy doesn’t need a corked bat to hit home runs. Most of his home runs probably clear the fence by an ample margin and don’t need a few extra feet.

    However, I can think of one possibility. Consider the difference between a 95mph fastball and a 99mph fastball. Only about 4%, but it seems to make a considerable difference. Likewise, a little extra bat speed could be really helpful. Being able to wait a fraction longer on a possible breaking ball without losing the ability to get around on the pitch if it turns out to be a fastball could make all the difference.

  • June 6, 2003 at 7:49 am
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    comment
    If this had happened to Joe Average, the issue would not be long discussed. Corking bats, doctoring baseballs, stealing signs, all cheats and all are part of baseball’s lore and legend. These kinds of cheats seem pretty much accepted by baseball itself – yah everyone hollars (and laughs) when someone gets caught but everyone also seems to secretly appreciate someone one who pulls a fast one and gets away with it. So the game is played with everyone knowing that the other team may try these little cheats and if someone gets caught, there’s the obligatory bruhaha, the penalty is paid, but no one really loses any respect unless they’re a bad “cheat” who’s always getting caught. Does that make them a bad person? well certainly not a good person, a cheat is a cheat – but I tend to think it adds a certain interesting flavor because the players themselves generally treat these little cheats as an accepted part of playing the game.

    Maybe it’s because these type of cheats are about helping your team win a game, the effects stay in the game, and they still require good performance. Gambling is not always about winning a game, sometimes it about throwing a game. And the effects certainly don’t stay just inside the game. The effects of steroid use don’t stay in the game either but follow a player around evrywhere they go when using. Both of these cheats amount to trying to get something for nothing. Whereas a pitcher still has to control a doctored ball and a hitter still has to hit cleanly with a corked bat

  • June 6, 2003 at 9:29 am
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    A cheat is a liar and to rationalize it away with a wink and a nod only justifies it. Guess what, if the legends of baseball did it, they are cheats too and I do not respect anybody that cheats.

  • June 6, 2003 at 1:59 pm
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    I posted elsewhere about this incident: in essence that the “answers” only serve to raise more questions; but I think Bill’s not quite confronting the argument.

  • June 9, 2003 at 2:32 am
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    When you come down to it, driving a little over the speed limit when you’re late for work is a cheat too. If you’re caught, you pay a fine and move on. You’re not banned from driving unless it becomes a chronic problem. My point is, baseball has lived with cork and vaseline for quite a while and neither one will destroy the game, though they may or may not smudge some player’s image. In the scheme of dangerous issues confronting baseball I put gambling and steroid juicing well ahead of a corked bat. When I look at Sosa, before and from now on, I wonder more about whether he’s a juicer than if he’s getting some arguable benefit from a corked bat. And I too think Pete Rose should not be re-admitted to baseball.

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