Rarely has a piece of cork sparked such a firestorm.
It was a midsummer mystery that has turned baseball fans into amateur sleuths. There was a botched theft worthy of any Watergate burglar. There were further revelations that major-league baseball players don't always play by the rules.
Last weekend's Batgate saga moved Monday from Chicago's South Side to New York, where the American League dealt a 10-day suspension to Cleveland's Albert Belle for illegally corking his bat against the White Sox.
The bat was taken from Belle's hands Friday night as he approached home plate at the request of White Sox manager Gene Lamont, who asked umpires to check its legality. Then it was stolen from a locked room at Comiskey Park during the game, only to be returned Saturday-surprisingly by the Indians. Monday it was ruled illegal after a league examination in New York.
In a summer when sacred home run records are being threatened, the Belle controversy begs the question: Are the balls juiced, or is it the bats?
"Believe me, he's not the only one corking his bat in the league," said White Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen. "The main thing is that he got caught. It's just like Watergate."
The violation in question regards Playing Rule 6.06 (d), which expressly forbids a player from tampering with his bat.
To cork a bat, a player typically drills a hole, fills it with the illegal material, glues back a piece over the hole and sands it down to look normal. It makes the bat lighter and allegedly increases a hitter's bat speed.
The league said it had X-rayed the bat, then sawed it in half, revealing the evidence. But Belle, enjoying a big year with .349 average and 26 homers going into Monday's game, disputed the charge. He immediately appealed and will be allowed to play until receiving a hearing on July 29.
That means Belle's bat-presumably uncorked-will be in the lineup when a four-game series begins Thursday between the Sox and the Indians. The two teams are in the thick of a heated race for the Central Division championship, and the two series last weekend in Chicago and this weekend in Cleveland are regarded as crucial showdowns.
Belle's agent, Arn Tellun, released a statement Monday: "We are outraged by the claim and feel it is no more than a well-timed charge concocted by the White Sox in the heat of a pennant race with Cleveland against the Indians' top hitting threat."
The bat episode may be the most famous of its kind since 1983, when Kansas City's George Brett had his bat ruled illegal immediately after he had homered against the Yankees. New York manager Billy Martin claimed Brett had used pine tar too far up the handle. The umps agreed, the home run became an out and Brett flew off the handle. American League President Lee MacPhail later reversed the decision, and the end of the game was replayed.
Three years later, the bat of Houston's Billy Hatcher was ruled illegal when it broke on contact in a game and cork came out. He received a 10-game suspension from the National League.
Here's how the Belle mystery unfolded:
Managers seldom ask an umpire to check a bat to see if it is legal, though every manager is allowed one check per game. Sox manager Gene Lamont said he decided to have Belle's bat checked Friday "on a hunch." The night before, Belle hit a 420-foot home run. Lamont and the coaches noticed how quickly the ball left the bat, and Sox GM Ron Schueler told Lamont to ask the umpires to check it.
The bat was confiscated in the first inning Friday, handed by umpire Davey Phillips to clubhouse attendant Vince Fresso and locked in the umpires' office.
During the sixth or seventh inning, Fresso entered the room and noticed it had been broken into through the ceiling. The bat had been replaced by another model, and the mystery began.
The American League started an investigation of the break-in Saturday, and after that night's game, the bat was somehow "found" and given to Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove, who turned it in to the league. The culprit who stole the bat hasn't been identified, but Indian General Manager John Hart said it was taken by a Cleveland employee who displayed "a misguided sense of loyalty to a teammate."
After Belle's suspension was announced Monday, Lamont said he felt no sense of vindication.
"I thought I was probably wrong," he said of his original hunch. "But once they took it, I knew I was probably right."
Most voiced surprise the Indians would actually hand back the real bat that had been impounded.
Shortly before the decision was announced, the feeling among players and managers at Comiskey Park was the Indians had sent back a different bat than the one originally confiscated.
"You'll never see that bat again," said Detroit manager Sparky Anderson. "It's long gone. Loooong gone."
The fact that a corked bat was given to the league may go down as one of the biggest Cleveland jokes of all time. For years, the town's sports fans have suffered pathetic teams that could never win and winning teams that would always break their hearts in the long run.
Detroit's Anderson said he has never asked to check a bat for corking in his 25 years of managing in the majors.
"I always felt this way," Anderson said. "If a guy could cork his bat, then good for him. I don't know what you're gonna do about it."
Sox designated hitter Julio Franco observed: "Albert is in a lot of trouble."
Cheating and baseball is nothing new, as Anderson pointed out.
"Guys for eternity have been using pine tar on baseballs, cutting balls," Anderson said. "Guys are still using K-Y jelly and old spit. To me, nothing is worse than a guy with a great forkball or a 97 m.p.h. fastball throwing a spitter. The 97 m.p.h. fastball scares me more. This stuff has been going on since the beginning of time."
In golf, drivers have been developed in recent years, like the Big Bertha model, that promise to make a ball travel farther than ever before. The United States Golf Association doesn't ban such clubs from the pro tour, unless it is not uniform in shape. So why must baseball be so concerned over a bat that makes a baseball travel farther?
"Yeah, but in golf, there are still legal clubs that they have to use," said Raines. "The bats all have to be within the same guidelines. The league has to approve any changes. I think it would be exciting for the fans if everyone could use (corked) bats. Not for the pitchers, though."
Sometimes, cheating is not really cheating at all. It's all semantics.
"It's an edge," Anderson said. "Any way you could get the edge, you did it. It's part of the game."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times