In a sport with a long history of chicanery, Sammy Sosa (search)'s corked bat is renewing questions about the integrity of the game.
Over the years, bats have been corked, filled with rubber and hammered with nails to give them extra clout. Pitchers have thrown spitters, greased balls with petroleum jelly, scuffed them with emery boards and rubbed them on their belt buckles to make them dip and dart. Managers have stooped to giving pitchers refrigerated balls to deaden them when the other team is up. Stealing signs is an art as much as stealing bases.
More than any other sport, baseball (search) has tolerated and even celebrated cheating as part of the game for more than a century. As the title of one book on the subject suggests, It Ain't Cheatin' If You Don't Get Caught.
There is a more serious side to the cheating issue: Steroids. Admissions of steroid use by several baseball players, and suspicions that many sluggers juice up, have shadowed the home run explosion in recent years.
Whether or not Sosa made an innocent mistake playing with a corked bat (search) Tuesday night, he stepped over to the shady side of sports and stained a career that seemed destined to land him in the Hall of Fame. He may get there yet, even if skeptics will always wonder if some of his 505 home runs so far have come with the help of funny bats.
Not that there's any proof that corked bats do any good, anyway. Some believe the opposite is true.
"You have a slightly lighter bat and you're going to hit the ball a little less far," said retired Yale professor Robert K. Adair, the author of Physics of Baseball (search).
Adair contends a corked bat may reduce by about 3 feet what would have been a 375-foot drive from a conventional wooden bat.
Yet even if cork gives more a mythical boost than a real one, Sosa still broke the rules and became the sixth major leaguer to be disciplined for a corked bat since 1997.
Sosa's trick bat -- he claims he previously used it only for batting practice -- doesn't sink him to the level of Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson, who loaded up on illegal steroids to win the 100-meters at the 1988 Olympics before he was caught and stripped of the gold.
Baseball said X-rays of 76 other bats confiscated from Sosa showed no signs of cork. That, Sosa said, is proof that he didn't regularly use juiced bats.
But Sosa's "mistake," if that's what it was, still puts him in the company of other alleged cheaters, in and out of sports.
"There are cheaters in sports, just as there are on Wall Street and in corporate America -- people who try to gain an unfair advantage," Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, said Wednesday. "It certainly does put a shadow on all [Sosa's] accomplishments. And it sends an unfortunate message to fans and young players that cheating goes on at the highest levels of the game."
Sosa's image had been one of joy and generosity. He applauded his rival, Mark McGwire, during their home run record chase in 1998 and claimed he never touched the kind of muscle-builders McGwire acknowledged using. Where McGwire had andro in his locker, Sosa pointed to Flintstones vitamins in his.
That clean-cut image makes Sosa's fall all the more hurtful for his fans.
"Your reputation, at the end of the day, is all you really have," Roby said. "That's what I think is unfortunate about Sosa. He feels like he let people down."
Sosa admitted as much.
"It's going to be tough. Some fans are probably not too happy about it," Sosa said. "I've got to deal with that. ... I know that I lost the fans and they have been great to me. It's a mistake, and I take the blame."
Many fans expressed forgiveness Wednesday night, giving Sosa a loud ovation when he did his traditional sprint to right field before the Cubs' game against Tampa Bay. Several fans carried signs supporting him, including one that read, "Still loving Sammy."
From Little League to the Olympics, sports are supposed to build character and teach integrity. Yet at every level, there are players, parents, coaches and officials who would just as soon cheat and lie in pursuit of fame and fortune.
Elite athletes, asked if they would take a pill that would help them win an Olympic gold medal even if it could kill them, overwhelmingly said they would, noted Wichita State sports psychologist Greg Buell.
"The whatever-it-takes-to-win mentality has overtaken any sense of fair play and ethics," Buell said. "What Sammy Sosa did was nothing less than cheating. He said he made a mistake but people are always going to say, 'Yeah, right, but how many of those homers were hit with an illegal bat?"'
A couple of years ago, Danny Almonte, the 14-year-old Little League pitcher from the Dominican Republic whose father falsified his birth certificate, stole perhaps the most glorious moment in the lives of players two years younger.
John Poovey, a Loveland, Colo., high school football coach whose players smeared their jerseys with nonstick cooking spray so tacklers would slip off, turned cheating into a culinary art.
All the Olympians who got caught blood-doping or taking steroids and other banned drugs, looking for an edge, made a decision at some point to compromise their integrity. They knew they were cheating, yet they did it anyway.
"The world has become so competitive," said Richard Lapchick, chairman of Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, "that an athlete sometimes will take risks that are obviously ill-conceived. They think they won't get caught or people won't care if they do get caught."