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Corking Bats Ain’t All (June 18, 2003)

So Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa was recently caught using a corked bat.  Imagine that: Cheating in baseball!

Some of our learned pundits have been shocked — shocked! — to the point of warning that the National Pastime had better clean up its act or it will surely lose fan support.

Well, the deep thinkers may actually believe baseball is a game of the pure at heart — that strictly following the rules comes first, winning second. But fans are a lot smarter than that.

Slipping a little cork into a partly hollowed out bat to make it lighter and capable of driving a ball farther is hardly new. It's been done for years, by an undetermined but not insignificant number of players.

Scuffing and moistening balls to make it harder for batters to hit them, and other breaking and bending of the rules has been going an for as long.

As Rogers Hornsby, a Hall of Famer who played and managed teams for a half-century, observed: “You've got to cheat. I cheated, or watched someone on my team cheat, in practically every game.”

Let me count the ways. Let me recall the exploits of pitcher Gaylord Perry, another Hall of Famer, who peeled off a sweat-sodden Seattle Mariners jersey after winning his 300th game to bring the world, watching on television, this vital message, printed across a brilliant yellow T-shirt in bold black letters: “Old Age and Treachery will Overcome Youth and Skill.”

The 43-year-old Perry had admittedly won many of those 300 games — if not all of them — by throwing balls doctored with saliva, Vaseline, suntan lotion, baby oil, fishing-line wax and who knows what other illegal substances that caused the balls to take decidedly peculiar paths en route to baffled batsmen.

Rubbing the ball with sandpaper or an emery board can also do the trick. So can scraping or cutting it with a sharpened belt buckle or maybe a thumb tack hidden inside the pitcher's glove. Many other pitchers have tried those variations — and more — though few have been as candid about their indiscretions as Gaylord Perry.

Former Minnesota pitcher Joe Niekro explained, for instance, that the emery board which fell from his pocket as umpires searched him on the mound one day was used strictly “to file my fingernails between innings.”

Think, too, of the groundskeepers who provide aid and comfort to pitchers by soaking basepaths with water before home games to slow down swift opponents or who allow the infield grass to grow tall, slowing ground balls so aging home team fielders can more easily reach them.

Teams also have been known to refrigerate game balls to deaden them before facing power-hitting teams. Some have even temporarily moved outfield fences back or, in one creative instance, simply put higher distance numbers on them to make the fences seem harder to reach.

And then there was former Cleveland pitcher Jason Grimsley. He broke into the umpires' dressing room in Chicago's Comiskey Park from the roof a few years back to substitute a non-corked bat for the corked bat of teammate Albert Belle that the umps had confiscated for later examination. Grimsley didn't get caught, but the umps nevertheless discovered that a switch had been made and, like Sammy Sosa, Belle was suspended. Turned out Grimsley had used another player's bat as a substitute. He had to — every one of Belle's bats was corked.

Corking bats is but one trick of the hitter's trade. Among many others, there's pounding nails into the barrel or hammering one side flat to make for a broader hitting surface. And we know — or at least suspect — that, despite official denials, baseball manufacturers are from time to time told to put more bounce into their product so as to increase the number of crowd-drawing homeruns.

Don't forget, either, the constant attempts of teams to decode the hand and finger signals — signs — used by managers and coaches to direct their players and by catchers to tell pitchers what kind of pitch they want and where they want it pitched.

Stealing signs is truly an art. Watch first and third base coaches especially, bending at the waist to tell batters that a curveball is coming, for example, standing upright to signal a fastball, or shouting out code words to tip off a pitch.

Some teams have gone so far as to station plain-clothes coaches with binoculars in the stands, in centerfield scoreboards or on neighboring rooftops to pick up catchers' signs and relay them via walkie-talkies or other means.

Pitcher-turned-announcer Mike Krukow worries about a recent development that has added even more tricks to the cheaters' repertoire — mirrored sunglasses worn by batters that enable them “to peek at the catcher's target without getting caught.”

Krukow calls that “big time cheating,” and maybe it is. But it's also baseball.

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