Sosa's hears cheers amid skepticism


Thursday, June 5th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


Only in America would a player get a standing ovation a day after getting thrown out of a game for cheating.

Or, in Sammy Sosa's case, maybe only in Chicago.

Wait till he leaves the "friendly confines" of Wrigley Field and goes to other ballparks. Don't count on too many "Still Loving Sammy" signs like the one in the bleachers Wednesday night.

Sosa, perhaps baseball's most popular player, promises to take it like a man. And take it he will from hecklers as he travels around the country with everyone wondering how many of his 505 home runs were propelled off a corked bat. Miles of smiles and kisses to the crowd, and he came undone with a dinky groundout.

"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."

Even if he hits 800 homers, none will be televised more than that splintered swing. David Letterman already did a Top 10 list of his explanations. In one mortifying instant, Sosa jeopardized his near certain path to the Hall of Fame. The second paragraph of his obituary will record his most ignominious moment -- just as George Brett's obit will recall his infamous pine tar bat.

I'd like to believe in Sosa. I'd like to believe in Martha Stewart. I'd like to believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. The older we get, the more cynicism sets in.

Sosa strains credibility when he claims it was all "a mistake" or "an accident" that he picked up his corked batting practice bat, the one he says he uses solely to put on a show for fans, and swung it in a game. Oops! The only one of his 77 bats embedded with a chunk of cork found its way into his hands.

No one who knows anything about baseball will think for a minute that Sosa hit 505 home runs because he had help from corked bats. But did he hit one with a corked bat? Two? Ten?

Did Pete Rose bet on baseball? He says no, the commissioner's office says yes. Let's say maybe. But did he ever cheat in any way? Nobody says he did. Which is more serious and goes to the integrity of the game, Rose's actions or Sosa's?

If Sosa knowingly played with a tricked-up bat, he cheated. He should be punished severely, far more than the usual week or 10 days, because of his status as one of baseball's premier sluggers. The game's integrity, as much as Sosa's, is at risk and a two-week suspension is warranted to send a message to other players. A month isn't too stiff.

Even if Sosa didn't plan on using the bat in the game, he should get a heavy penalty for using it at all and putting himself in the position to be caught. Stupidity is no excuse for breaking the rules.

But the retribution should end there. This is not the kind of violation that should keep him out of the Hall of Fame. Too many others have done the same thing or worse.

Baseball has a long history of chicanery. 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 other sports, baseball has tolerated and even celebrated cheating as part of the game nearly since its inception. 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. Sosa, rippling with muscles, has always denied taking drugs, but some may wonder whether he might have cheated with his body if he cheated with his bat.

Innocent mistake or not, Sosa stepped over to the shady side of sports. He didn't sink to the level of Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson, who loaded up on illegal steroids to win the 100 meters in the 1988 Olympics before he was caught and stripped of the gold. But Sosa's "mistake," if that's what it was, still puts him in the company of other alleged cheaters.

"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 sends an unfortunate message to fans and young players that cheating goes on at the highest levels of the game."

In the end, that's what matters most.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org