Cubs rally around Sosa, but others not so sure

Wednesday, June 4th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) -- After being peppered with question after question about Sammy Sosa's corked bat, Chicago Cubs starter Mark Prior had had enough.

"I'm not answering any more," he said testily. "Anybody need to ask me about pitching?"

While Sosa's stunning gaffe Tuesday night was hotly debated by fans and the rest of baseball, his teammates stood solidly behind him. The slugger maintains he used a batting practice bat by mistake, and the Cubs say they will believe him unless evidence proves otherwise.

"In our society, you're supposed to be innocent until you're proven guilty," said Cubs manager Dusty Baker, who gave Sosa an encouraging pat on the back as they passed at a postgame news conference.

"We have to wait and see whatever verdicts come down and try not speculate," Baker added. "Try to give the guy an honest chance, and believe him until you've proved otherwise."

Cork was found in the handle of Sosa's bat when it shattered after he hit a grounder to second in the first inning against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The bat was confiscated, and Sosa was immediately ejected.

Cork inside a wooden bat is thought to help players hit the ball farther and is against baseball rules. Several players have been caught using altered bats in the past, including Albert Belle, Wilton Guerrero, Chris Sabo, Billy Hatcher and Graig Nettles. All were suspended.

But none had Sosa's credentials. Seventeenth on the career list with 505 homers, he's become an international icon since his home-run race with Mark McGwire in 1988.

"It's a crisis we've got to deal with. I understand it's hard right now," Sosa said after the game. "I just apologize. That's the only thing I can say, from the bottom of my heart. ... I guarantee to you I never use anything illegal."

Security confiscated the corked bat so it could be turned over to major league baseball. Sosa said security officials also took the rest of his bats -- filling two boxes and a canvas bat bag.

Sosa said the corked bat was one he used for batting practice so he could put on a show for fans. When he got ready for Tuesday night's game, he simply grabbed the wrong one.

It's a plausible explanation, teammate Lenny Harris said.

"The guy's got like four, 500 bats in his locker," Harris said. "He admitted he made a mistake, and he's going to have to put up with what needs to be done.

"Sammy's sad about it," added Harris, one of Sosa's closest friends on the Cubs. "He came in here and thought he let everybody down."

In some people's eyes, he did.

"Unfortunately, it's a dirty mark, when you consider all he's accomplished," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "It's really unfortunate for the game. Everybody's scratching their heads right now. ... It's embarrassing. He's too good of a player. It's too bad."

And it's not just Sosa who may have to deal with the fallout.

"Everyone who hits a home run now, they're going to think you're using a corked bat," said Atlanta's Andruw Jones, who hit a game-winning, two-run homer against Texas. "It just makes home-run hitters look bad."

But Seattle second baseman Bret Boone said Sosa's career shouldn't be judged on this one night.

"I just hope it doesn't taint what he's done," Boone said. "Corked, not corked, he's got as much power as anyone in baseball. He's probably got as much power, outside Mark McGwire, as anyone in history. It's probably embarrassing for him.

"Pitchers cheat all the time. They scuff balls, use pine tar. I've never used a corked bat, not even in batting practice. If I was guaranteed I wouldn't get caught, I probably would."

But Baker said he doesn't think Sosa cheated.

"Deep down in my heart I truly believe Sammy didn't know that was in there," he said. "But I just hope that this event, whatever it was, doesn't tarnish his career or take away all that Sammy Sosa's done. For baseball and for Chicago."