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Jewish World Review June 5, 2003 / 5 Sivan, 5763

George Will

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Baseball Uncorked | Chicago baseball fans, who are composites of scar tissue and mortifying memories, instantly drew upon one of those memories for their response -- "Say it ain't So-sa'' -- to Sammy Sosa's ejection from Tuesday night's game for the rule infraction of using a corked bat. Their words echoed the boy who supposedly exclaimed, "Say it ain't so, Joe," to Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the White Sox players accused of throwing the 1919 World Series.

The Sox have been to only one Series since then, in 1959, which they lost. The Cubs have not been to a Series since 1945, which they lost, and have not won one since 1908, two years before Tolstoy died. But even Cub fans, although inured to pain, winced Tuesday night.

Sosa drove in a run with an infield out, but his bat shattered, revealing cork in the barrel. So the run was disallowed. Sosa says a corked bat he used to produce fan-pleasing fireworks during batting practice and home-run-hitting contests mistakenly got mixed in with his game bats. Corking a bat reduces its weight, enabling a batter to increase bat speed and to drive some pitches he might not otherwise be able to hit hard.

Before Tuesday's game was over, Major League Baseball took possession of 77 of Sosa's bats. None of them is corked, which lends powerful support to Sosa's explanation.

This is good news for baseball. The ebullient Sosa is the game's most marketable star. His competition with Mark McGwire for the 1998 National League home run title, which McGwire won 70 to 66, was a crucial ingredient in baseball's recovery from the fan-alienating strike that truncated the 1994 season on Aug. 12 and canceled the World Series.

Furthermore, baseball produces -- inning by inning, game by game, season upon season -- a rich sediment of statistics that sustain the arguments that nourish interest in the game with the longest history. If Sosa's slugging -- he is the only player to hit 60 or more home runs in three seasons -- was assisted by cheating, he will be diminished, as will the game's ongoing narrative. And all other players will come under a lowering cloud of cynicism about the authenticity of their achievements.

Major League Baseball will decide the seriousness of what Sosa did Tuesday -- whether it was an accident arising from injudicious showmanship (actually, fans deserve to know that Sosa's prodigious achievements in home-run-hitting exhibitions are unassisted by illegal bats) or whether he has repeatedly cheated in games. The stakes are high. Bart Giamatti knew why.

In 1987 pitcher Kevin Gross of the Philadelphia Phillies was caught with a small patch of sandpaper affixed to his glove, and a sticky substance on his glove. Sandpaper can be used to scuff a ball's surface, changing its wind resistance and hence its movement when pitched. Foreign substances also can alter the movement of a thrown ball, and it is no defense to say, as a pitcher (a Cub, of course) said when indignantly denying that he put a foreign substance on the ball: "Everything I use on it is from the good ol' U.S.A.!"

Gross was suspended for 10 days by Giamatti, then National League president. A former president of Yale and a professor of Italian and comparative literature, Giamatti died in 1989 shortly into his five-month tenure as baseball commissioner, after imposing a lifetime suspension from baseball on Pete Rose for gambling on games. Giamatti knew exactly why "boys will be boys" is not a satisfactory response to paltering with the rules of the game.

Most of baseball's punishable offenses involve fighting or other violence that arises from the heat of competition. While such acts cannot be tolerated, Giamatti wrote, "It must be recognized that they grow often out of impulse, and the aggressive, volatile nature of the game and of those who play it."

Such offenses, he said, are less execrable than acts "of a cool, deliberate, premeditated kind'' -- acts that have "no organic basis in the game and no origins in the act of playing." They are acts of cheating that are "intended to alter the very conditions of play to favor one person." Such acts "are secretive, covert acts that strike at and seek to undermine the basic foundation of any contest declaring the winner -- that all participants play under identical rules and conditions."

Giamatti understood that a team sport, like democratic society itself, involves a precious and precarious equipoise of individual striving and collective endeavor. In sport or society, break the rules that govern that equipoise and hark! what discord follows.

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