Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa was the hero Major League Baseball needed. Without him clobbering home runs into the Wrigley Field bleachers, doing a fun hop when he tagged one into orbit, and blowing kisses into the camera, who knows where the game would be today. He helped make America’s Pastime cool again, but a corked bat incident stained his image forever.
Back in 2003, Sosa was still one of the biggest MLB superstars around. He was the NL home run leader the year before, became the first player in history with three seasons of at least 60 home runs two years prior, and belted his 500th home run earlier in the season. Despite the Cubs being arguably the best team in baseball, however, his powers were starting to fade.
In addition to PED rumors swirling like the Chicago wind, Sosa was also placed on the disabled list for the first time in years that May after surgery to remove a toenail and on his right big toe. Then, June 3, 2003 happened.
Sammy Sosa’s Corked Bat Incident
With runners on second and third in the bottom of the first inning, Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa, who was in a bit of a slump at the time, smacked a low breaking ball from Tampa Bay Devil Rays pitcher Jeremi Gonzalez to second base. The pitch snapped Sosa’s bat in half, and he was thrown out at first, but the play scored Mark Grudzielanek.
Everything looked routine. Broken bats happen all of the time, but this proved to be different.
Crew chief Tim McClelland and the rest of the umpires gathered around to examine the home run hitter’s bat and discovered a piece of cork.
”I turned it over and there was a small, probably half-dollar-size piece of cork in the bat right about halfway down the barrelhead, I guess,” McClelland said, via The New York Times. ”It was notched in there. I felt it and it obviously was cork, so I called the crew together, and it was reminiscent of what happened about 20 years ago with me.’’
McClelland, of course, was a rookie umpire behind home plate during the infamous pine tar incident with Kansas City Royals star George Brett in 1983.
Sosa was ejected from the game, and Grudzielanek was ordered back to third base. The 1998 NL MVP and MLB All-Star known for the historic home run chase with Mark McGwire didn’t react. He left the game and issued an apology later:
”I just want to say that I first want to apologize to my teammates, the fans, and the commissioner of Major League Baseball. What happened today was something that wasn’t meant to have happened. I took the wrong bat and I went up there and it happened. It’s a bat I used for batting practice. It’s a mistake.
”I apologize from the bottom of my heart. I guarantee to you, I never used anything illegal. I feel bad and I take the blame for it, and I have to move on.’’
Sosa loved to put on a show for his fans, especially during batting practice before games. He used the corked bat to blast home runs during warmups, and he grabbed the wrong bat. That was his reasoning and Cubs fans were willing to forgive him.
Unfortunately, the damage was done. Sosa was busted. The slugger was suspended eight games for the incident. The suspension was reduced to seven games after the appeal.
MLB tested 76 of Sosa’s bats after the incident, including five on display at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Not a single one of them had a piece of cork in it.
“The way the umpires kept coming in and the way I heard the clubhouse was possibly surrounded, you’d have thought they were looking for the FBI’s ‘Ten Most Wanted’ list,” Cubs manager Dusty Baker said that night, via the Chicago Tribune.
Corking a bat isn’t a common thing, but it has happened in the past. Billy Hatcher (Houston Astros), Albert Belle (Cleveland Indians), Chris Sabo (Cincinnati Reds), and Wilton Guerrero (Los Angeles Dodgers) had all been busted before. None of them were as polarizing as Sosa.
No one has been caught since, either.
Although links to PED usage is the likely factor that kept Sosa out of Cooperstown, the unfortunate corked bat incident stained Sosa’s image forever and, accident or not, it’s a lowlight he was never able to fully escape from.