Cheating in baseball: No longer winked at?

With one splintered swing of his mighty bat, Sammy Sosa has thrown the entire baseball world into doubt.

Never mind that cheating has been shrugged off as a part of the game since ballplayers first pulled on a set of stirrups. That Gaylord Perry brought everything short of a miter saw to the mound to doctor baseballs and was still voted into the Hall of Fame. That Bobby Thompson's "Shot Heard Round the World" has not been diminished despite revelations that it was aided by an elaborate scam to steal opponents' signals. That revered historian Bill James suggests Babe Ruth might well have corked his bat, and no one cares.

Yet the instant Sosa's shattered bat landed on the Wrigley Field turf Tuesday night, showing illegal cork in the core, professional baseball began a meltdown unseen since the days of Pete Rose. The reasons for the crisis are as curious as they are complex - from baseball's unwritten rules to Sosa's status as one of the best and most beloved figures in the game.

But underlying the entire conversation is the belief that this shred of evidence helps bolster a mounting suspicion: that the offensive explosion of the past decade - which has rewritten the record books and made men like Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Barry Bonds baseball deities - is at least in part founded on illegal bats, juiced balls, and drugged bodies.

The speculation has become a frenzy in recent days, lacking only chub and a school of circling sharks. Sports channel ESPN went so far as to cut open one of Sosa's old bats live on the air, revealing no cork. A sports bar with other Sosa bats reportedly X-rayed the wood, with the same results.

Part of it is pure theater, as Sosa's bats become more mysterious than Al Capone's vault. But just as intriguing is the fact that this is not some second-string shortstop or brooding bad boy.

This is Sammy Sosa. The man who, along with McGwire, saved post-strike baseball in 1998 with an epic home-run race. The man who sprinted around the bases with an American flag after Sept. 11. One of only 18 men ever to hit 500 home runs in a career, and the only man ever to hit 60 home runs in three seasons.

Now, some say, the image of a cork lodged in Sosa's broken bat will forever open his achievements - and his character - to question. "It casts this whole haze over players' performances," says Bob Hille of The Sporting News. "Might it have helped him hit six more home runs or 60?"

The examination of several memorabilia bats - as well as 76 bats confiscated on Tuesday - has dulled some of the doubts about whether all Sosa's greatest feats were ill-gotten. No other bat has shown cork. Moreover, several scientific studies have suggested that drilling out the core of a bat and filling it with cork shavings is nothing more than a superstitious placebo that does nothing to the bat's performance.

But the reaction is casting a new light on baseball's peculiar culture history of cheating. Few other sports present as much opportunity for cheating as baseball, which offers players more time and toys to tinker with.

Gaylord Perry and other pitchers were known to use Vaseline, emery boards, and thumbtacks to scuff, cut, scar, and slather, the ball in hopes of making it move erratically on the way to the plate. Norm Cash won the batting title in 1961 and later admitted to using a corked bat the entire season. And stealing opponents' signals has long been considered an art form.

"This is a continuation of the fine art of cheating in baseball," says Hille. "It's always been winked at."

Increasingly, though, fans aren't winking. Major League Baseball's power surge has replaced a tacit trust with a deep skepticism. It used to be that 50 home runs was a watermark achievement. In the century of baseball before 1995, players hit or passed that number only 18 times. In only eight years since, however, players have equaled that total.

A host of factors have contributed to the trend, from weaker pitching staffs to ballparks built for the long ball. But the most obvious to any fan is the fact that many players could now pass as extras in "Pumping Iron." The 1996 National League MVP, Ken Caminiti, has admitted to taking steroids all that year and estimated that as many as half of ballplayers used the banned substance. Former American League MVP Jose Canseco put the number at 85 percent.

The taint of such accusations has already touched Sosa, who has been questioned about how he transformed himself from a willow-thin rookie to a baseball Hulk in blue pinstripes.

Now, to restore his reputation, it seems, he will have to crack open his bat after every home run.

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