Rarely has a piece of cork sparked such a firestorm.
It was a midsummer mystery that has turned baseball fans into amateur sleuths. There was a botched theft worthy of any Watergate burglar. There were further revelations that major-league baseball players don't always play by the rules.
American League dealt a 10-day suspension to Cleveland's Albert Belle for illegally corking his bat against the White Sox.
The bat was taken from Belle's hands Friday night as he approached home plate at the request of White Sox manager Gene Lamont, who asked umpires to check its legality. Then it was stolen from a locked room at Comiskey Park during the game, only to be returned Saturday-surprisingly by the Indians. Monday it was ruled illegal after a league examination in New York.
In a summer when sacred home run records are being threatened, the Belle controversy begs the question: Are the balls juiced, or is it the bats?
"Believe me, he's not the only one corking his bat in the league," said White Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen. "The main thing is that he got caught. It's just like Watergate."
The violation in question regards Playing Rule 6.06 (d), which expressly forbids a player from tampering with his bat.
To cork a bat, a player typically drills a hole, fills it with the illegal material, glues back a piece over the hole and sands it down to look normal. It makes the bat lighter and allegedly increases a hitter's bat speed.
The league said it had X-rayed the bat, then sawed it in half, revealing the evidence. But Belle, enjoying a big year with .349 average and 26 homers going into Monday's game, disputed the charge. He immediately appealed and will be allowed to play until receiving a hearing on July 29.
That means Belle's bat-presumably uncorked-will be in the lineup when a four-game series begins Thursday between the Sox and the Indians. The two teams are in the thick of a heated race for the Central Division championship, and the two series last weekend in Chicago and this weekend in Cleveland are regarded as crucial showdowns.
Belle's agent, Arn Tellun, released a statement Monday: "We are outraged by the claim and feel it is no more than a well-timed charge concocted by the White Sox in the heat of a pennant race with Cleveland against the Indians' top hitting threat."
The bat episode may be the most famous of its kind since 1983, when Kansas City's George Brett had his bat ruled illegal immediately after he had homered against the Yankees. New York manager Billy Martin claimed Brett had used pine tar too far up the handle. The umps agreed, the home run became an out and Brett flew off the handle. American League President Lee MacPhail later reversed the decision, and the end of the game was replayed.
Three years later, the bat of Houston's Billy Hatcher was ruled illegal when it broke on contact in a game and cork came out. He received a 10-game suspension from the National League.
Here's how the Belle mystery unfolded:
Managers seldom ask an umpire to check a bat to see if it is legal, though every manager is allowed one check per game. Sox manager Gene Lamont said he decided to have Belle's bat checked Friday "on a hunch." The night before, Belle hit a 420-foot home run. Lamont and the coaches noticed how quickly the ball left the bat, and Sox GM Ron Schueler told Lamont to ask the umpires to check it.
The bat was confiscated in the first inning Friday, handed by umpire Davey Phillips to clubhouse attendant Vince Fresso and locked in the umpires' office.
During the sixth or seventh inning, Fresso entered the room and noticed it had been broken into through the ceiling. The bat had been replaced by another model, and the mystery began.
The American League started an investigation of the break-in Saturday, and after that night's game, the bat was somehow "found" and given to Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove, who turned it in to the league. The culprit who stole the bat hasn't been identified, but Indian General Manager John Hart said it was taken by a Cleveland employee who displayed "a misguided sense of loyalty to a teammate."
After Belle's suspension was announced Monday, Lamont said he felt no sense of vindication.