|Wednesday, June 4
Updated: June 5, 4:11 PM ET
Sosa cheated, but don't look down upon him
By Rob Neyer
I have to admit, I'm a bit puzzled by all the hullabaloo surrounding Sammy Sosa, who's not anything like the first player to cork his bat, nor the last.
But it's become a huge story, and before things go any further I think we have to ask two questions:
1. Should this change our opinion of Sammy Sosa, the baseball player?
2. Should this change our opinion of Sammy Sosa, the man?
Those are wholly separate questions, or at least they should be. Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle were two of the five greatest center fielders who ever played the game, and that's true whether or not they were nice people. Which, in many ways, they weren't.
So let's start with the first of those questions. Should this change our opinion of Sammy Sosa, the baseball player?
No, I don't think it should. For one thing, at this moment we don't have any idea how many of the 505 home runs were hit with an illegal bat. I have to think the number is considerably less than 505, however. Why? Because I would assume that many of Sosa's bats have shattered over the years, and if he'd been corking them for all these years, somebody would have noticed before now.
For another (more important) thing, there's very little evidence that corking a bat actually helps.
Yes, you read that correctly. In his seminal book, The Physics of Baseball, Robert Adair devotes three pages to corked bats, and concludes,
The characteristics of any specific baseball bat can be changed by drilling an axial hole in the end of the bat and filling the hole with some light, inactive, extraneous material. The modified bat differs from the original bat by its lighter weight and smaller moment of inertia. Bats drilled out in this way are excluded from play under the Official Baseball Rules. But the properties of such modified bats can be reproduced by a legal bat with the same "feel" and hitting characteristics.
What's more, Adair suggests that while lightening the bat will result in slightly greater bat speed, this effect is largely (completely?) balanced by the smaller amount of inertia, and thus the ball won't travel as far as it might otherwise have. Which is to say, corking the bat doesn't really make any difference.
Which isn't to say it's not stupid, because it is. Sosa's likely going to be suspended for at least eight games, thus materially hurting the chances of his team. And while it's certainly possible that using a corked bat for many years might have materially helped his team in some small way, it's true that in most of those years the Cubs wouldn't have finished in first place even if everybody in the lineup were using titanium bats. This year, it could hurt the Cubs. Because they are in a pennant race, and they'd like to have their future Hall of Famer in the lineup.
To answer the original question, though ... No, this doesn't really change my opinion of Sammy Sosa, the ballplayer. He's heading to Cooperstown because he's an immensely talented player who completely remade himself as a hitter five years ago. That said, he's been overrated for much of his career, and this incident might simply serve to lower the popular perception to somewhere near the objective reality.
With that out of the way, should this change our opinion of Sammy Sosa, the man? Well, sure. Maybe a little. After all, he did cheat. So if anybody out there thought that Sammy Sosa was perfect, now they know better. But do we think Graig Nettles was a bad guy because he put rubber balls in his bat? No, we don't. Do we think Billy Hatcher was a bad guy because he put cork in his bat? No, we don't. Do we think Albert Belle was a bad guy because he put cork in his bat? No, we don't (we think Albert Belle was a bad guy for a lot of other reasons).
Nobody's perfect, and a significant percentage of players would cheat if they thought they could get away with it. In fact, there's a famous saying in baseball, "It ain't cheatin' if you don't get caught." Which reminds me, what's with the double standard in baseball? Gaylord Perry, who was famous for throwing a greaseball, sailed into the Hall of Fame. Mike Scott won the Cy Young Award in 1986, even though everybody knew he was scuffing the ball. In the later years of his career, Whitey Ford knew every trick in the book and he used all of them.
When pitchers cheat, it's "colorful." When hitters cheat, it's "cheating."
To me, it's all cheating. But let's not hold Sammy Sosa to a different standard than we hold Gaylord Perry and Whitey Ford.
In my mind, Sammy Sosa's still a Hall of Famer. And as for what kind of man he is, I can't say I know much more today than I did yesterday.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.