George Will

WASHINGTON--Chicago baseball fans, who are composites of scar tissue and mortifying memories, instantly drew upon one of those memories for their response--``Say it ain't So-sa''--to Sammy Sosa's ejection from Tuesday night's game for the rule infraction of using a corked bat. Their words echoed the boy who supposedly exclaimed ``Say it ain't so, Joe'' to Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the White Sox players accused of throwing the 1919 World Series.

The Sox have been to only one Series since then, in 1959, which they lost. The Cubs have not been to a Series since 1945, which they lost, and have not won one since 1908, two years before Tolstoy died. But even Cub fans, although inured to pain, winced Tuesday night.

Sosa drove in a run with an infield out, but his bat shattered, revealing cork in the barrel. So the run was disallowed. Sosa says a corked bat he used to produce fan-pleasing fireworks during batting practice and home run hitting contests mistakenly got mixed in with his game bats. Corking a bat reduces its weight while retaining the barrel's mass, enabling a batter to increase bat speed and to drive some pitches he might not otherwise be able to hit hard.

Before Tuesday's game was over, Major League Baseball seized his other bats. An examination of them will tell if Sosa is telling the truth.

Baseball passionately hopes so. The ebullient Sosa is the game's most marketable star. His competition with Mark McGwire for the 1998 National League home run title, which McGwire won 70 to 66, was a crucial ingredient in baseball's recovery from the fan-alienating strike that truncated the 1994 season on Aug. 12 and canceled the World Series.

Furthermore, baseball produces--inning-by-inning, game-by-game, season-upon-season--a rich sediment of statistics that sustain the arguments that nourish interest in the game with the longest history. If Sosa's slugging--he is the only player to hit 60 or more home runs in three seasons--was assisted by cheating, he will be diminished, as will the game's ongoing narrative. And all other players will come under a lowering cloud of cynicism about the authenticity of their achievements.

Major League Baseball will decide the seriousness of what Sosa did Tuesday--whether it was an accident arising from injudicious showmanship (actually, fans deserve to know that Sosa's prodigious achievements in home run hitting exhibitions are unassisted by illegal bats) or whether he has repeatedly cheated in games. The stakes are high. Bart Giamatti knew why.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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