June 6, 2003

Coverage of Sosa cork incident misguided

Any self-respecting sportswriter must be aware that there are certain limitations to his field. Sports is a diversion, something people turn to when they've had too much of politics or mathematics or biomedical engineering. Sports only raises itself in importance occasionally, and even then it's a symbolic importance. Baseball might be the most symbolic sport, but it's still just a sport. Nothing Sammy Sosa says or does is going to change that, no matter what kind of implement he uses.

Okay. The details of the situation are these: Sammy Sosa picked up a batting practice bat filled with cork and broke it hitting a ground ball in the first inning of his game against the Devil Rays on Tuesday night. I'm assuming everyone knows this. Sosa later claimed that it was the only corked bat, that he uses it to impress fans during batting practice, and that he inadvertently picked it up before his at-bat. He claimed that every other bat was made according to MLB standards, and so far his story has checked out. I'm guessing everyone knows this too. It hasn't been hard to find information of this sort.

The media has lavished attention on this matter with a kind of abandon we haven't seen since, well, since Sosa was racing Mark McGwire for the season homerun record. Sammy has been on the cover of the Sun-Times for two straight days. Even the fan who brought a "Still Lovin' Sammy" sign to Wrigley Field last night has become famous. The Chicago-area news programs have each been devoting whole segments to the matter. Meanwhile, I've been told that there are still politics happening in the Middle East and elsewhere.

There are also other things happening in sports: Serena Williams has been upset, and Tim Duncan did more on the basketball court last night, during the NBA Finals, than anyone has done in quite a while. Ignoring that kind of thing in favor of the Sosa controversy is significantly more justifiable than ignoring world events, but it's still a bit foolish.

One news program referred to this whole scandal as "Batgate." I think that says enough about what is wrong with the situation.

I do not, incidentally, feel guilty about devoting this space to the Sosa controversy, this being a baseball column, and so often used to talking about the Boston Red Sox. Besides, the scandal is important, in its own symbolic way.

It has been repeatedly pointed out that Sosa is gargantuan and tremendously talented at baseball, and as such doesn't need the kinds of advantages afforded to those people who choose to cork their bats. Even if Sosa had been using a corked bat for his entire career, he might have augmented his career totals by something like 40 or 50 homeruns. Which means he would probably get to 500 with or without the trickery.

But consider the images: those homeruns hit in the late innings of what seemed at the time like fateful games. What about the tape-measure rockets he launched in Milwaukee last summer, those consecutive 500-footers that made everyone's jaws drop? Were those faked, or even just exaggerated? What if homerun number 500 was hit with a corked bat? It's unsettling to think of things like this. Sosa has been exalted as both a Dominican and an American hero, and no one wants to see him fall from grace.

Parents and purists want to see real heroes out there for children to admire. Sosa has always been one such person, in spite of occasional whisperings about his suspected steroid use. But his image has remained more or less untainted, and there are a lot of people who really hope he can escape this scandal as well. For what it's worth, I think that he will. There is something categorically differentiating Sosa from, for instance, Pete Rose. And I'm inclined to believe every word that he has said to the media since that bat splintered/fell apart in the way that cork falls apart on Tuesday night.

That's what I think, anyway, for whatever that's worth. And the temptation exists to transform this scandal into a broad sign-of-the-times type issue-to depict the slow erosion of the still-pure phenomenon of baseball, or the sad state of American decadence. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The scandal is far from over, and we have lots of other things to attend to.