Saturday, August 11, 2001

Corking bats common, accepted

        Joel Youngblood spilled his dirty little secret on a subway ride in Montreal, 15 years after the fact, far beyond the statute of limitations.

        He wasn't feeling guilty. He was gloating.

        “We were talking about corking bats,” Reds announcer Chris Welsh recalled Friday afternoon, “and Youngblood said, "I took you deep on a corked bat in San Francisco.' He only hit one home run off me and I remember that the ball just jumped off his bat. I couldn't believe that ball went that far.”

        Confession might be good for the soul, but it can be bad for the batting average. Corked bats do not conform to the official baseball rules, and they constitute grounds for
suspension. Though major-league hitters have been tampering with their tools since the first Louisville Slugger came off the lathe, they tend not to talk about it until retirement.

        Tommy Gioiosa's allegation that Pete Rose corked his bat to compensate for declining bat speed is neither shocking nor scandalous. Corked bats were commonplace during Rose's playing career, and their use remains as informally condoned in baseball as scuffed balls and stolen signs.

Risk vs. reward

        Once in a great while, someone's bat will shatter and out will pour evidence of crooked carpentry. Athletes will always weigh the rewards of invention against risk of detection. When they find an advantage, they can be counted on to exploit it.

        At the height of the Reds-Dodgers rivalry in the late 1970s, Reds president Dick Wagner began collecting baseballs used by Tommy John and Don Sutton. Upon request, Wagner would draw detailed diagrams depicting the specific scuff patterns of the two Dodger pitchers.

        The science of bat-spiking is similarly exact. Players — or their woodshop accomplices — drill a narrow hole in the top of the bat (maybe three-eighths of an inch), replace the removed wood with some foreign substance and then seal the compartment with a glued-on wood cover.

        “Youngblood was always known as a very accomplished carpenter,” Welsh said. “We suspected him for years, but nothing ever leaked out of his bat.”

        Former Red Tracy Jones said Friday he once used a corked bat in a pickup game in California, only to have the bat break on his first swing.

        “I also corked my aluminum bat,” Jones said. “I put tennis balls in it.”

        A cork center might make a bat lighter, but further advancements are also available.Graig Nettles and Chris Sabo were each apprehended during their careers wielding bats containing compressed rubber balls. Colorado Rockies manager Buddy Bell said some members of the Anaheim Angels once experimented with liquid mercury.

        “I would prefer that you didn't have to do it,” Bell said. “But you're always looking for an edge. It's been going on forever.”

        Bell said his personal experience with corked bats was inconclusive — “I couldn't find much difference,” he said — but his memories are priceless. He was a Cleveland coach when reliever Jason Grimsley crawled into a locked umpires room to retrieve Albert Belle's corked bat.

        “I don't think the hitters do it as much now,” Welsh said. “They don't need to do it. The balls are livelier, the ballparks are smaller and the guys are bigger. Instead of corking bats, they're corking their diets.”

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