Cork Controversy

There is a common misconception that exists about someone who is a sportswriter. Because of what the job entails, people believe that knowledge of any and all sports is a prerequisite. They believe you know more than any of the other millions and millions of sports fans out there. That is simply not true. If you do not believe it, simply ask the other members of the ACE Weekly staff who were entered into the NCAA Office Pool. I was last. Dead last. The truth is, the only difference between me and your average literate sports fan is that I happen to own compromising photographs of ACE Weekly owner Rhonda Reeves that have been parlayed into a regular gig as a contributing sports writer. (Remember boys and girls, with the right photos you too can achieve your dreams!!) Being a sports fan and liking to write yields a sportswriter.

I never really think of myself as a sportswriter, only a sports fan who happens to write about sports. I watch games with my heart, and the passions felt about the game fuel what is written. “Fan” is short for “fanatic” and many friends can verify that the description fits. It seems to help, voicing some concerns shared by the common man and not just a jaded writer, who only sees sports as a business.

Being a fan, though, sometimes makes it hard to look at things objectively. University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino could find a cure for cancer, and we would still think of him as a Benedict Arnold A-hole. The love for the University of Kentucky has never been hidden, and likewise for the Chicago Cubs. And that is where the problem lies.

In case you have been living in a cave for the past week or so, the biggest story in Major League Baseball is Sammy Sosa and his corked bat. To briefly sum it up, during a game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Sosa’s bat broke in half. Upon inspection by the umpiring crew, cork was discovered, and Sosa was ejected from the game. After the game, Sosa confessed the illegal bat was his, it was simply for occasional use in batting practice and exhibitions, it was accidentally put with his game bats, and he did not knowingly use it in a game. He stated he had never used a corked bat before and apologized to the team, the fans, Major League Baseball, and everybody else he could think of. Seventy-five of Sosa’s bats were confiscated by MLB from the Cubs’ clubhouse for investigation, as well as x-raying all his bats in the Hall of Fame. They all came back clean.

This is a big story because Sosa is one of the games more popular and marketable players, and an accusation of cheating, even if it was just a mistake, is very damaging. This is the man, who with Mark McGwire in 1998, helped bring baseball back from the ugliness of the strike. His image is built upon his smile and personality. Sosa is easy for kids to like, because he seems a lot like them, just happy to be out there playing the game. His reputation, presumably, will never be the same.

I believe Sosa. Among sportswriters, that opinion is in the minority.

A lot of sportswriters forget what it means to be a fan. Noted Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly smugly sat on ESPN for 24 hours straight, somehow trying to convince us this mistake justified his ambush interview of Sosa last year about steroid use. It doesn’t, but if it makes him feel better, so be it. Reilly is an opportunist who is always ready to create a story, such as his fight at this years Masters, when one does not exist. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti, who so eloquently defended his Boston Globe colleague Bob Ryan after a mistake he made last month, joined in with the piling on. In a recent column, that had nothing to do with Sosa’s controversy, he squeezed in a comment calling Sosa, “the Convicted Corked Batsman.” That prompted an email in which I asked him whether he would mind if I constantly referred to Bob Ryan as “the Convicted Advocate of Striking Women.” No response as of yet. ESPN radio personality Dan Patrick accused Sosa of ducking the media because he would not appear on his show. This, despite the fact that in the 24 hours since the incident Sosa talked to ESPN’s Harold Reynolds on the phone, held a press conference after the game, gave an interview to the ESPN reporter present at the game, and then held another press conference. Yet, he was ducking the media.

Fans were much more forgiving. After MLB cleared the rest of Sosa’s bats, and his version of the story was confirmed, if not proven, he apologized again. That night, pending the suspension that would surely come, he sprinted out to right field as he normally does, to the cheering of the fans. He received a standing ovation every time he came up to bat. Fans understand when people are kicking a downed man.

Fellow players, such as Pedro Martinez of the Boston Red Sox and Gary Sheffield of the Atlanta Braves, witnessed the uproar certain members of the media made over the controversy and saw something else, racism. If this had been Mark McGwire or Cal Ripken Jr., the uproar in the media would have been less, they believe. “We may be Latin,” said Martinez, “We may be a minority. But we are not dumb.”

Columnists still do not seem to get it. “Blind adoration” is what it was called in the Sun-Times today. You can call it forgiveness. A lot of people were asking, “What do I tell my kids?” Easy. Tell them that we are all human. Nobody is perfect. At some point in our lives, we will make mistakes. When this happens, tell them to follow Sosa’s lead. Acknowledge your mistake. Take responsibility for what you did and apologize. Apologize to anyone you may have hurt. Once you do that, it is out of your hands. Hopefully, you will be forgiven. Nothing heals a wound like two words: I’m sorry. That is something as a fan that I have always understood. It is something as a sportswriter that I hope I never forget.