Thursday, June 5, 2003

Another cheating athlete

Good guy Sammy Sosa caught

Even though the Reds beat the Yankees in front of a huge crowd Tuesday in Cincinnati, the biggest news in sports that night came from Chicago.

Slammin' Sammy Sosa, one of baseball's all-time great power hitters with a reputation as an ultimate good guy, got caught cheating with a corked bat. An umpire discovered the illegal modification after Sosa broke the bat hitting a grounder against Tampa Bay in the first inning.

Former teammates said they were shocked and disappointed. Sosa's competitors said it was "bad for the game." Fans, young and old, were faced with a superstar who seemed to be willing to cheat to win.

This isn't the kind of infraction that can be excused by the heat of a game - like a late hit in football or a pitch that zings too close to a batter's head. It takes a lot of effort and planning to drill out the core of a bat, replace it with cork and plug the hole. That a player of Sosa's stature did it is all the more disappointing. He's been one of the sport's signature players for years, as much for his enduring nice-guy image as for his four consecutive 50-plus home-run seasons.

A contrite Sosa apologized to the sports world after being ejected. He claims he just kept the illegal bat around to show off for fans during batting practice and only picked it up by accident during the game.

The sports world will want to believe him. Many really do believe him. No one wants to lose the affable Sosa to the ranks of sporting lowlifes who dope horses, pop steroids or otherwise try to enhance performance by breaking the rules.

If precedent is followed, Sosa will be suspended for about 10 games. But his problems go much deeper. That broken bat casts a pall over everything he's done on the field. It's natural to wonder if he had cork in his bat for any of his 505 career home runs.

More than a decade of good will won't disappear overnight for Sosa. He's still the man who hugged his home-run rival, Mark McGwire, when McGwire, not Sosa, became the first to hit 62 homers in a single season.

And he's still the man who stirred his hometown crowd to a standing ovation in 2001 when he sprinted onto the field carrying an American flag in the first game back after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But there's no doubt about it: He swung a corked bat Tuesday. He must face the repercussions, and baseball fans must face the unfortunate fact that the list of untarnished sports heroes grew smaller this week.

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