PERIODICALLY, major league baseball finds someone with his hand in the equipment ``cookie jar.'' The latest shenanigans involve Cleveland outfielder Albert Belle, who was suspended for 10 days Tuesday for using a souped-up, cork-enhanced bat. The suspension has been delayed pending a July 29 hearing before American League president Bobby Brown.
What makes this case different from others like it is the strange disappearance and reappearance of the evidence. The bat was removed from a July 15 game at Comis-key Park in Chicago after White Sox manager Gene Lamont asked that the umpires inspect it. Based on things he'd heard, Lamont says he was suspicious. Once confiscated, however, the bat was stolen from the umpires' room and replaced with a mystery bat, then just as mysteriously returned two days later.
Unless new evidence emerges in this caper, more than a 10-day suspension seems in order. Doctoring a bat to make it lighter is cheating, a blow to the sport's cherished integrity.
Belle's bat was sawed in half after an X-ray revealed something fishy inside. Maybe the majors should consider taking X-rays of all bats, much as is done with carry-on items at airports. Cup odds and ends
* Wasn't it refreshing to see such a major sporting event played with nary a mention of money? The trophy, not money, was the only prize that counted. Nonetheless, players were remunerated. The United States team, for example, reportedly had a structure of financial incentives, which included divvying up $1 million if it had won.
* The number of shots that hit the goal posts came as a surprise. It makes one wonder what a modest increase in the goal width might do for scoring.
* With the World Cup expanding from 24 to 32 teams beginning with the 1998 tournament, one suspects soccer officials may view the US as an increasingly attractive future site. There just aren't that many places that can host such a massive competition in such large stadiums.
* In retrospect, is it any wonder that the World Cup tournament was practically free of security problems? Various factors favored this, including a generally affluent audience, the distance of the US from known soccer trouble spots, and the distance between host cities, which practically ruled out low-budget disruptions. Then, too, the visible security presence, in-cluding policemen who stood facing the stands throughout games, was striking. The undercover folks were out in force, too, as was evident after a game in Foxboro, Mass., when this reporter saw a gun fall out of the pocket of a policeman dressed in shorts and a tank top. He had to show his badge to a guard to prove his identity. Who's on first?
TUESDAY'S ``Sports Notebook'' incorrectly implied that Jeff Bagwell of baseball's Houston Astros is a third baseman. Though once a third-base prospect in the Boston Red Sox farm system, he now plays first base. Bagwell is outslugging the players who were ahead of him with the Red Sox and who, like him, were named to the July 12 All-Star Game - Wade Boggs (now with the Yankees) and Scott Cooper (who moved into Boggs's vacant major league slot). Bagwell has 29 home runs; Boggs and Cooper a combined 22. Switch kicker
TONY MEOLA, the US goalie with the slicked-back hair, has a little of Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan in him. He has branched out athletically by signing a one-year contract with pro football's New York Jets, who will try him as a placekicker. And what about baseball? He was once drafted as a centerfielder by the New York Yankees.