Cubs superstar Sammy Sosa, arguably the Major Leagues' most popular player, got his own shot at baseball infamy Tuesday night. He was tossed out of a game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays after his bat shattered on a run-scoring groundout and home plate umpire Tim McClelland discovered cork in the bat.
After Sosa, 34, was ejected, his bats were confiscated by security to be checked.
To his credit, Sammy came clean in a post-game interview.
He had been caught red-handed in front of the hometown crowd.
He admitted the bat was juiced -- hollowed out and filled with cork to make it lighter and springy.
"I used that bat for batting practice, not in the game," said a sheepish Sosa. "It is a mistake, and I apologize to everyone, everyone, who is embarrassed by this. I just picked the wrong bat, that's it. I use it to put on a show for fans ... I like to make people happy in batting practice."
No way, said embarrassed Cubs fans, who usually cannot get through the Wrigley Field gates until near the end of batting practice. Some said the incident had tainted Sosa's 505 career home runs and three consecutive 60-plus home run seasons not to mention his nice-guy image.
Sosa, who once joked away speculation of steroid use by saying the only pill he took was Flintstones vitamins, hit his 500th homer on April 4.
He's not the first player accused of using a doctored bat.
In 1974, six super balls came flying out when New York Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles broke a bat.
Devil Rays first base coach Billy Hatcher was suspended for 10 games for using a corked bat when he played for Houston in 1987. Cleveland Indian George Belle had to sit out seven games in 1994 after his confiscated corked bat was stolen from a locked umpires dressing room at Chicago's Comiskey Park.
Cincinnati Reds' Chris Sabo was suspended for seven games in 1996 and the Los Angeles Dodgers Wilton Guerrero got an eight-game suspension for using a corked bat in 1997.
When the Cubs stayed in first place in the National League Central Division with Sammy sidelined by a big toe injury, team faithful began to wonder if 2003 was "the year" for a ball club that hasn't been to a World Series in most of their lifetimes.
For other fans, the corked bat incident is as hard to swallow as Sosa's explanation.
"He tried to pull a fast one and got caught. It's another case of a whining, overpaid crybaby," said a disgruntled fan.
Sammy likely will serve a 7- to 10-game suspension, but his career will remain tarnished.
Sosa's 1999 home run derby with St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire helped bring fun back to baseball after the 1994 strike left a sour taste in fans' mouths. Sosa and McGwire became folk heroes that bright summer and Sammy an icon in the Hispanic community.
Even umpire McClelland -- the same ump who ejected Kansas City Royals star George Brett for using too much pine tar on his bat in 1983 -- felt sorry for Sosa.
"With all the great things that Sammy has done for baseball, that ran through my mind," McClellan said. "I didn't want to do it, but there are rules. He had to be ejected."
The story may not end with a suspension. The Sun-Times reported the Cubs batboy took the handle of the doctored bat back to the dugout where it disappeared.
Cheating is nothing new in sports or business.
Home décor diva Martha Stewart faced a federal indictment for insider stock trading, IBM an SEC investigation of accounting practices, and investors in Enron, WorldCom, Tyco International can only weep at their retirement portfolios.
The Cubs won 3-2, but shouldn't sports be a cheerful diversion from the jaded cheaters of the world -- not another reflection of them.