Advertisement

Sosa’s Bats Cleared, but His Image Isn’t

Share via
Times Staff Writer

An investigation into the bat scandal that rocked baseball provided a degree of vindication Wednesday for Chicago Cub slugger Sammy Sosa, but observers said Sosa’s actions may have done irreparable damage to his reputation as one of baseball’s most prodigious power hitters and one of the most marketable names in sports.

On Tuesday night, Sosa was ejected for using an illegally corked bat in a game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

X-rays taken Wednesday of the 76 bats belonging to Sosa that were confiscated by Major League Baseball after the incident showed no cork or foreign material, lending credence to Sosa’s explanation that he inadvertently went to the plate with a bat he claims to have used three or four times during pregame batting practice to put on home run hitting shows for the fans.

Advertisement

“We’re very confident that all those bats were clean and had no foreign substances in them,” Sandy Alderson, baseball’s executive vice president of operations, said at a Wrigley Field news conference. “This is consistent with Sammy’s explanation of the incident Tuesday night.”

Bob Watson, baseball’s vice president for discipline, began his investigation Wednesday night, and Sosa is expected to be fined and suspended for using the illegal bat, perhaps as early as today. But his penalty is not expected to approach the 10-game suspension former Cleveland Indian outfielder Albert Belle received for using a corked bat in 1994. Belle’s suspension was later reduced to seven games.

The X-rays also may minimize the damage for one of baseball’s most popular players. In a recent Sports Business Daily poll, Sosa was ranked baseball’s third-most marketable player behind New York Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter and Texas Ranger shortstop Alex Rodriguez. Sosa is a spokesman for MasterCard, ConAgra Foods, Armour Hot Dogs, Easton Sports and PepsiCo. But on Wednesday, the five-time All-Star was being skewered on television and radio stations across the country.

“I stood up [Tuesday] like a man, I took the blame, but the media made me out to be a criminal,” Sosa said in a brief news conference before Wednesday’s game. “I understand people can take things the wrong way, but I was compared to something out of this world. We’re all human, we all make mistakes. Nobody is perfect.”

In the first inning of the Cubs’ 3-2 victory over Tampa Bay Tuesday night, Sosa’s bat split as he hit a ground ball to second base. Devil Ray catcher Toby Hall showed a piece of the bat to home plate umpire Tim McClelland.

After examining the shard, McClelland ejected Sosa for using an illegally corked bat. The piece of the bat was confiscated for examination, and major league security officials then removed Sosa’s other 76 bats from the Cub clubhouse.

Advertisement

Sosa was in the lineup Wednesday night, and was greeted by loud cheers when he did his traditional sprint to right field before the game. Fans were clearly on his side, with one holding up a sign that read, “Still loving Sammy.” He got a standing ovation when he came to the plate in the first inning. But he struck out three times while going one for four in a 5-2 loss to Tampa Bay.

“I don’t think he’s worried about it,” Cub Manager Dusty Baker said. “He has to worry, No. 1, about his own conscience. He goes to chapel with us every Sunday. I’m sure he’s more concerned about his friends, family and how God feels about forgiving him.”

There was more scorn than forgiveness earlier Wednesday. Sosa’s now-infamous bat, the barrel of which shot past the Wrigley Field mound, wasn’t the only thing that seemed shattered.

So, possibly, was Sosa’s legacy, his reputation as one of baseball’s most prodigious sluggers, his almost iconic status -- he’s a fan favorite with an infectious smile, an ambassador of the game who has been called the patriarch of Dominican baseball -- and his Q-rating as one of professional sport’s most marketable athletes.

“It certainly does put a shadow on all [Sosa’s] accomplishments,” said Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. “And it sends an unfortunate message to fans and young players that cheating goes on at the highest levels of the game.”

Tarnished, as well, was the Great Home Run Chase of 1998, when Sosa and former St. Louis Cardinal first baseman Mark McGwire developed a special kinship, marked by bear hugs, high-fives and playful fists to the stomach, during their pursuit of Roger Maris’ single-season home run record, a summer of love that captured the hearts of millions and revitalized the game.

Advertisement

“For Sammy Sosa, for baseball, and for sports marketing, this is a disaster,” Frank Vuono, co-founder of the New Jersey-based 16W Sports Marketing firm, told the Sports Business Daily.

“For Sammy, given his reputation has been built on not only hitting towering home runs but by his impeccable demeanor, getting caught cheating with his bat, no matter the alibi, ruins his credibility and taints him forever.”

Even Cub President Andy MacPhail acknowledged: “It’s not going to go away. It may fade over time, but it’s going to be something that we all remember.”

Added Atlanta Brave center fielder Andruw Jones: “Everyone who hits a home run now, they’re going to think you’re using a corked bat. It makes home run hitters look bad.”

Some questions remained unanswered Wednesday: Didn’t Sosa, 34, know the difference between his game bats and the corked batting-practice bat? Wasn’t the illegal bat marked in some way that would indicate it was corked?

“If I would have known, I wouldn’t have picked it up,” Sosa said. “And if I would have known beforehand [that I had a corked bat], I would have tried to pick up all the pieces, don’t you think? I was focused on the game. I didn’t have time to identify it. I just picked the wrong bat.”

Advertisement

Another question: Is baseball sure it confiscated every Sosa bat? Alderson, who said it’s possible the five Sosa bats in the Hall of Fame might be tested, admitted there was a gap between the time the incident occurred and the time security personnel entered the clubhouse.

“But we feel strongly about the cooperation of everyone involved,” Alderson said. “And together, with the review of bat records from the equipment manager, we’re as confident as we can be that we have all the bats.”

Baseball officials were unable to retrieve all sections of the broken bat. “Part of it disappeared into the stands, but there was certainly enough in the section we had to support the decision by the umpire on the field,” Alderson said.

Was there any substance besides cork found?

“We have not done a laboratory analysis of the material found inside the bat,” Alderson said. “But it was different from maple.”

Finally, there is debate over whether corked bats even help hitters. Players cork bats because they believe it helps them hit the ball farther. Two prominent physics professors, Robert K. Adair of Yale and Daniel Russell of Kettering University in Flint, Mich., say the boost a slugger gets from a corked bat is highly overrated.

“You have a slightly lighter bat and you’re going to hit the ball a little less far,” Adair said. “It’s a lot of work for a little benefit.”

Advertisement

Sosa, who ranks 17th on baseball’s all-time list with 505 home runs and is the only player to hit 60 or more homers in three seasons, said he has had dozens of bats break in the last few years with nothing suspicious found, and his reaction after breaking his bat Tuesday night didn’t seem out of the ordinary.

But not everyone was buying Sosa’s story. ESPN devoted a two-hour special to the controversy, titled “Say It Ain’t Sosa,” Wednesday, and several hosts and guests, including former New York Met Manager Bobby Valentine, were skeptical.

“When you get right down to it, it strikes me that someone should check to see if Sosa’s head has been corked -- or if it is merely bone,” said David M. Carter, who teaches the business of sports at the USC Graduate School of Business. “After all, it seems to me that he took or allowed for an enormous and totally unwarranted risk.”

Sosa’s agent, Adam Katz, acknowledged that Sosa’s image “is going to take a little bit of a hit,” but he believes Sosa will eventually recover.

“This guy didn’t intend to pick up a corked bat and use it in a game,” Katz said by phone from Miami. “He made a mistake, and he feels bat about it. The mistake was that a corked bat was in an environment that allowed it to be picked up. He’s prepared to pay whatever price is appropriate.”

That price could include lost endorsements. He makes about $4 million a year in endorsements and made about $10 million shortly after 1998, the season in which he’ll forever be remembered as a gracious bridesmaid to McGwire, whose 70-homer season surpassed Sosa’s 66.

Advertisement

“The first thing companies look for is credibility, and Sammy Sosa’s has been tarnished forever,” Steve Rosner, co-founder of 16W Marketing, told Bloomberg News. “If I’m a company looking for someone to endorse my product, he’s automatically eliminated.”

Though Carter said Sosa’s story “doesn’t hold much water,” he believes Sosa will rebound.

“Because he has a reservoir of goodwill with fans, most will be willing to overlook his incredible lack of judgment,” Carter said. “In fact, if he handles it well by addressing this crisis head on, he may emerge intact as a marketing vehicle....

“Fans are so forgiving, and they have such short memories, they don’t want to believe the people they revere have problems.”

*

Associated Press contributed to this report.

Advertisement