Monday, October 11, 2010

Baseball enjoys playoff activity while Chicago left with corked bat memories

Two of the biggest moments in baseball that involved “corked” bats involved Chicago baseball, and recently we have received our reminders of both of them.

I have no intention of placing a bid.

BUT IT SEEMS there are people who are interested in buying the bat once used by one-time Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa that was used to hit a home run in a June 3, 2003 inter-league game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

That is the home run that was later struck down by the umpires on the grounds that the bat was “corked,” meaning it was hollowed out and filled with a lighter substance in a way that makes the bat lighter to swing without reducing its physical mass.

Former Cubs pitcher Mike Remlinger admits he picked up the bat and tucked it away in his locker, then took it home with him at season’s end. It is only now that he is trying to make a few bucks by placing the bat up for auction in hopes that some sports memorabilia geek will be willing to pay something significant for it.

As of Sunday night, there had been 14 bids submitted, with the high bid thus far being just under $2,600. Maryland-based Schulte Auctions is handling this particular event online, with bids being accepted through Oct. 31.

SOMEONE IS GOING to get an expensive Halloween present – a baseball bat that can never be used in a legitimate baseball game.

What makes this moment memorable is that it was this particular moment when Chicago Cubs fans began to consider the possibility that the “star slugger” upon whom their favorite team was completely based might somehow be fraudulent.

As much as I think it is hypocritical for the way in which Cubs fans now dump all over Sosa and try to turn him into a non-person in team history, that particular moment was one of significance.

Because I still remember the justification that Sosa tried to provide for having a corked bat – one so blatantly tampered with that the auction house says it is easily visible just by looking – among the nearly 70 that he owned.

IT WAS HIS “batting practice” bat – one meant to ensure he could hit more long fly balls during pre-game workouts that only Cubs fans could think mean much of anything. Only Sammy could think that batting practice “home runs” were significant.

And soon, someone is going to be able to own that bat. I can’t help but wonder what will become of it.

Will the bat be put on some sort of display for people to see? Or are we going to get someone who thinks they are making a “bold” statement by publicly destroying the bat – similar to how that foul ball that Cubs fan Steve Bartman supposedly interfered with to cost the Cubs the National League pennant that same season?

Ken Burns, in Baseball: The Tenth Inning, his recently aired sequel to his 1994 documentary about baseball and its impact on U.S. culture, included the video of that ball being blown up during an elaborate ritual that I still consider one of the most absurd moments I have ever seen.

IN TALKING ABOUT Sosa’s significance to baseball, Burns didn’t mention the corked bat home run. But he did tell us all about the July 15, 1994 game at New Comiskey Park where Albert Belle, then of the Cleveland Indians, was suspected by umpires of using a tampered baseball bat in a game against the White Sox.

Umpires confiscated the bat, intending to have it closely inspected after the game. But as the New York Times reported years after the fact, Indians pitcher Jason Grimsley broke into the umpires’ dressing room to steal the bat back – knowing full well that Belle was guilty and would get hit with massive penalties unless the “evidence’ was destroyed.

Not that the thought of a ballplayer in mid-game sneaking through the crawl space above the locker rooms isn’t mildly amusing in a warped sense of the word. The “Mission Impossible” theme music plays in the background.

But listening to commentators talk about how “honorable” it was that Grimsley (who personally described the moment as, “one of the biggest adrenaline rushes I’ve ever experienced”) would put himself at risk by snatching the bat back was a bit much to endure.

IN FACT, ABOUT the only thing that made the moment endurable is the fact that Belle’s reputation got so tainted that no one ever forgot it. I still recall the sight of the Chicago White Sox a few years later auctioning off some surplus equipment, including a Belle bat from his two years on the South Side that had been sawed down the middle so as to verify that it was pure lumber.

So at a time when baseball fans are focused on the playoffs, and New York Yankees fans are already anticipating the victory celebration through the streets of Manhattan, we in Chicago are left with these memories of cork (which in some cases is actually rubber) in bats.

Unless we want to get all excited about former Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood’s performance on Saturday – one-third of an inning pitched, with three hits and allowing the lone run that the Minnesota Twins managed to score before being sent home along with the White Sox players to watch the World Series this year on television.


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