June 6, 2003
Put a Cork In It
If you've followed any of the media coverage surrounding Sammy Sosa's corked bat, you're probably already tired of it. If you've seen Rick Reilly on ESPN, looking as if his head might explode with anger at any moment, while implying that it's a short step from corking a bat to being hopped up on steroids, you're probably dog tired of it.
So I'm going to leave Sosa out of this for a while.
Rule 6.06 A batter is out for illegal action when [...] (d) He uses or attempts to use a bat that, in the umpire's judgment, has been altered or tampered with in such a way to improve the distance factor or cause an unusual reaction on the baseball. This includes, bats that are filled, flat surfaced, nailed, hollowed, grooved or covered with a substance such as paraffin, wax, etc. No advancement on the bases will be allowed and any out or outs made during a play shall stand. In addition to being called out, the player shall be ejected from the game and may be subject to additional penalties as determined by his League President.
What's the difference between the outrage over corking a bat, and the love for a pitcher who cheats? I'm not quite sure. For all the email I got after writing an article on Gaylord Perry for ESPN.com last year, I received only two messages that were decidedly anti-Perry. We know for certain that doctoring the ball results in an advantage for the pitcher. For batters, doctoring bats may hurt them. There's a lot of debate on this--whether corking the bat lightens it enough to offset the decreased amount of mass, or if Vf(1) > Vf(2)...I don't know, ask Gary. On the other hand, Earl Weaver says it works in Weaver on Strategy, which means that maybe it's time for someone to build Swingotron 2000 and arm it with some doctored bats, and see how it does against Pitchomatic 2000.
If we don't know whether corked bats improve performance, though, why care?
It's because the battle is different. If you're a pitcher cheating, you require several things:
Let's say a batter figures out a way to make a bat hit balls much farther. Infuses wood with aluminum, say, or hollows it out and fills it with delicious caramel, so the ball is attracted to the center of the bat. As long as the batter doesn't hit the ball 900 feet--or the bat doesn't explode, or make a strange humming sound--the only way the umpire is going to know to check the bat is if the cheater is overcome with guilt and confesses in the box. And then what's he going to do--turn it over in his hand? Take a couple cuts himself and evaluate the bat's tensile properties?
Pitchers become the loveable rogue. They're swindlers, operating in front of thousands of people who are looking for them to cheat. As fans, we're not the ones who get swindled, so we can appreciate the craft. If a pitcher can get away with something as difficult as cheating under those circumstances, you have to tip your hat to them. As for the integrity of the game, well, it's like having Ricky Jay rip you off while playing poker: you're amused enough to forgive them.
Batters cheating, though, are at almost no risk to themselves. Few batters are ever caught using illegal bats; they might as well be using steroids in the NFL for the chances they'll be discovered and sanctioned. The batter gets an advantage without risk, and nobody likes that. Instead of the loveable rogue, the corked batter is the Ken Lay of cheaters, wrecking havoc everywhere he goes, undetected, never having to face the full consequences of his actions. It's the same way with steroids: they're an invisible betrayal. No one knows for sure who, if anyone, is bulking up the hard way and who's working out with legal supplements.
All of this explains why Sosa's taking so much abuse: not only because he's built such a stand-up image around a cork center, and everyone wants some portion of their cheers and support back, but also that people want an example made out of him to discourage the cheaters they know are out there but can't be detected. The nature of batter cheating means Sosa could well have gotten away with such a thing for ages without discovery, especially if he was picking his spots. Now, it would appear he didn't--and I'd bet that the Hall of Fame bats, for instance, turn up clean--but it's the frustration of never knowing that's being vented on Sosa.
It's all in the style of the crime. If Sosa had made a huge deal about cheating for years, claiming to (but not actually) use corked bats, he'd get them confiscated all the time, umps would look him over, and managers would make a big deal about it. And if he ever got caught using one, it'd be laughed at, and no one would be mad. This is why Perry and Whitey Ford are in the Hall of Fame, and why we have to endure George Will making the media rounds, talking about how Sosa's offensive statistics may have to carry an asterisk (which, apparently, now means 'not really' when used in rule books).