Broken Bat, Shattered Image

Chicago Cubs fans, who have put up with a lot in the team's long history, certainly didn't need this. Neither did baseball, which once again is in the doldrums.

When home-run marvel Sammy Sosa's bat broke Tuesday night on an infield hit, something didn't look right. Umpire Tim McClelland, who has a bizarre history of involvement in bad-bat incidents, picked it up and found it stuffed with cork - a serious rules infraction.

Conventional wisdom says hitters can swing a corked bat faster because it weighs less, supposedly giving an edge in hitting home runs. But at least one Yale physics professor has told the Chicago Tribune in the past that a lighter bat actually lessens the distance the ball flies.

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Mr. Sosa is either the victim of his own innocent mistake - he says he accidentally grabbed a bat he uses for practice - or he's yet another in a long line of cheaters who have tarnished their own reputations along with that of their sport. Even if Sosa's other bats - confiscated by baseball officials - are found legitimate, what had been merely unproven rumors about cheating will now dog his career. Just having the bat was poor judgment on Sosa's part. Observers expect him to receive a 7-to-10 game suspension.

Baseball has serious problems as it is. Former players claim steroid use is rampant. A Baltimore Orioles prospect died in spring training after taking a dietary supplement that most other sports ban. Many fans believe today's baseballs are "juiced" to produce more homers.

Attendance this year is down, contributing to many teams' economic woes. Major League Baseball last year had to take over control of the Montreal Expos, who this year - in one of the game's oddest gimmicks ever - are playing some "home" games in Puerto Rico, while Washington, D.C., remains without a team fans desperately want.

Baseball has recovered from worse. Field a team that wins games, and the fans will come. Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane is showing, by sophisticated and new use of statistics, how to do that on a small budget, although some revenue-sharing will still be needed.

But fans won't come if they think they're getting a phony product. The Sosa incident is a brushback pitch, warning baseball to clean up its act.

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