A man can work up a powerful appetite pitching a baseball. So Harry Coveleski, a young hurler for the Philadelphia Phillies in the early 1900s, would keep a hunk of bologna in his back pocket to nibble on during the game.
There was nothing illegal about this, but Coveleski did his snacking “more or less secretly,” anyway, perhaps because he was “somewhat ashamed of his habit,” an opponent recalled in Lawrence Ritter’s classic, “The Glory of Their Times.” “It was sort of an obsession with him.”
According to legend, New York Giants manager John McGraw found out about Coveleski’s between-innings munching and told his players to get on him about it. So they would stop the kid on his way to and from the mound “and say, ‘Hey, give us a chew of that bologna, will you?’” the Giants’ Fred Snodgrass told Ritter. “Well, this so upset this fellow that he couldn’t pitch against us to save his life. He never beat us again, word got around the league and the other clubs started doing the same thing, and it chased him right back to the minors — or at least that’s what we Giants always claimed.”
Ballplayers have always looked for something to give them a little edge, a little extra oomph — fair or foul. For Harry Coveleski, it was a bite of baloney. For Joe Niekro, it was a piece of sandpaper. And for Sammy Sosa, it’s a corked bat.
The lucky ones never get found out. For instance, we didn’t learn until after his career — when he ‘fessed up — that Norm Cash won the 1961 American League batting title with an illicit piece of lumber. Until then, Cash’s only connection with “funny” bats was the time in ‘73 he went to the plate with the leg of a table. (With good reason, too. Nolan Ryan was an out away from a no-hitter, and Norm figured he had as good a chance of breaking it up with a Thomasville Slugger as with a Louisville one.)
Unfortunately for Sosa, he won’t get to clear his conscience from the safety of retirement — or from Cooperstown, even. That option went out the window Tuesday night when his bat broke apart against Tampa Bay, revealing its innards for all to see. Soon enough, the Cubs slugger was being ejected, runners were being returned to their original bases and his other bats were being confiscated for further analysis.
Let me guess: The Devil (Rays) made him do it.
At least Sammy didn’t cop the kind of plea another famous Chicagoan — Jake of the “Blues Brothers” — did when asked to account for a similarly indefensible act. “It wasn’t my fault,” Jake bleated to the woman he’d left standing at the altar. “Honest. I ran outta gas. I had a flat tire. I didn’t have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn’t come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from outta town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake … a terrible flood … locusts. It wasn’t my fault! I swear to God!”
No, Sosa simply stood before the cameras and said he had grabbed “the wrong bat” before going up to the plate — the one he uses during pregame warmups to put on “a show for fans. I like to make people happy. … I take the blame. It’s my mistake.”
Sammy promised that his other bats, the ones carted away by Major League Baseball, were made of good ol’ American wood from handle to barrel. No cork, no superballs, no nitroglycerin. But even though that’s the case, what does it prove? Perhaps that Sosa was smart enough to keep only one fraudulent bat with him at a time — thus making it easier to defend himself in the event of an “accident.” Then, too, maybe he has a stash of illegal sticks somewhere else in the stadium. If I were Bud Selig, I’d start combing Wrigley Field for a revolving bookcase.
At least we know now why Sammy, as he entered his 30s, seemed to age like a fine wine. He was having some of his bats made by Robert Mondavi.
OK, so all the details haven’t come out. All the details will probably never come out. It’s the last thing baseball needs, though. The specter of steroids and other performing-enhancing drugs still hovers over the game, and now we have Sosa, the only three-time 60-homer man in big-league history, getting caught with a corked bat. Is anything in our “national pastime” real anymore, or should we just go ahead and appoint Jesse Ventura commissioner?
As for Sammy, his 505 career home runs are looking more and more like Canadian dollars. In the era of Jim Rome and “The Best Damn Sports Show Period,” the appearance is the reality.