Vintage Cork Tales

July 20, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Suddenly, the terrific offensive numbers that Cleveland Indians outfielder Albert Belle put up during the first half of the 1994 season seem as hollow as the corked bat that he allegedly used to produce them.

Belle, who received a 10-day suspension Monday for using an illegal bat, is the first major-league player since 1987 to be caught trying to obtain an unfair advantage at the plate, but corking apparently has been a common practice for many years.

Just ask Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who said that he experimented with a corked bat during pre-game workouts in 1968. Or talk to Brooks Robinson, who said that he won an old-timers' home run derby in the early 1980s using a corked bat.

"I don't know how widespread it was when I played," Frank Robinson said, "but I know it was done. There were a lot of rumors. I experimented in batting practice, but it didn't do anything. I didn't like the way the ball reacted coming off the bat."

The procedure is relatively simple. The end of the bat is bored out with a drill and the hole is filled with a lighter, more resilient material. Theoretically, the decreased weight should enhance bat speed, and the bouncy material inside is supposed to help the ball explode off the bat.

But even if that is the case, why would a player as strong as Frank Robinson -- or Albert Belle -- think he might need any help to propel the ball into the stands?

"I was just curious," Robinson said. "I think with an Albert Belle-type guy, it's more psychological. He doesn't need it. I think it might help a guy who maybe isn't quite as strong, but Albert Belle certainly didn't need it."

The Belle controversy conceivably could cost the Indians the American League Central title. He appealed the suspension, but if he eventually spends 10 days on the sidelines, it would be a major blow to a team that might not be in contention without him.

Was it worth the risk? The conventional wisdom of the clubhouse says that a corked bat can turn a warning-track fly ball into a home run, but studies by the company that makes most of the bats used in the majors indicate that the advantage gained from corking may not be significant enough to justify the possibility of a lengthy suspension.

"We are always experimenting," said Rex Bradley, vice president of Hillerich & Bradsby Co., the company that makes Louisville Sluggers. "The only thing you do [by boring out the bat] is make it lighter. You could do the same thing by ordering a lighter piece of timber. Players do it for bat speed, but many of them believe [cork] makes the bat more lively."

Hillerich & Bradsby has tested that theory, using instruments to measure the velocity of a baseball rebounding off a stationary bat, and found that the filler material had little effect on the flight of the ball.

"Of course, every bat is different," Bradley said. "You're dealing with a natural substance. Every one is going to react a little bit differently, so it is possible that someone might derive an advantage. I don't think it would be appreciable."

Tell that to Brooks Robinson, who had some firsthand experience with a doctored bat during an old-timers exhibition series in Denver in the early 1980s.

"Jose Cardenal and I were in a home run-hitting contest," Robinson said. "He hit before I did, and when he came back from the plate, he said, 'Use my bat. It's corked.' I took it and won the home run contest. I must have hit four or five balls out of Mile High Stadium.

"Of course," he added with a laugh, "everybody is doing that now."

The last player to be caught using a corked bat in a game was Houston Astros outfielder Billy Hatcher, who was suspended for 10 days in 1987.

Before that, the most famous doctored-bat incident involved New York Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles, who was disciplined in 1974 after his bat fractured and spilled small rubber balls onto the ground around home plate.

Belle's alleged transgression couldn't have come at a more inopportune time for major-league baseball, which is enjoying a season of almost incredible offensive production.

There already was suspicion that this year's baseballs might be wound a little tighter than usual. Now, there is room to wonder how many of baseball's big hitters might be using "juiced" bats.

Belle is on his way to a career year. He's batting .350 with 27 home runs and 79 RBIs, and is ranked among the American League leaders in almost every relevant statistical category. But if he cannot prove his innocence, the legitimacy of those numbers always will be in question.

"That is what you're risking," said former Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan. "Who knows how much that has helped him? But now, whatever he does is going to be tainted. It puts an asterisk on everything you've done."

It isn't difficult to detect a doctored bat. The hole has to be covered after the filler material is inserted, and the growth rings in the wood are difficult to match, regardless of whether the bat is painted or varnished.

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