Baseball: America stunned as Sosa's cork pops out

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"Say it ain't so, Sammy." That was the plea by Chicago Cubs fans in particular, and baseball followers in general yesterday, as the corked bat of Sammy Sosa, the Cubs outfielder and among the greatest sluggers in the modern game, dealt a new blow to the credibility of a troubled sport.

The moment that stunned baseball came on Tuesday when Sosa, 17th on the all-time list of home run hitters, shattered his bat at the bottom of the first innings of the Cubs' home game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. When umpires gathered up the fragments, they found a piece of cork embedded inside.

Sosa was ejected from the game, and the run he had driven in with the hit was cancelled. But his problems will not end there. The use of cork, which by making bats lighter and thus increasing bat speed is believed to make a baseball fly further, is banned.

Sosa claimed he accidentally pulled out a bat he uses to put on home run displays for fans in batting practice. His view of events seemed to be vindicated last night after dozens of other bats used by Sosa were sent to baseball headquarters in New York for examination and none of them were found to be corked.

However, the baseball commissioner Bud Selig is still set on conducting a thorough investigation. Sosa could face a suspension of up to 10 games. The final decision will be made by Bob Watson, baseball's vice president in charge of discipline.

If found guilty, the career achievements of the Dominican-born player ­ who earlier this season became the first Latino to enter the exclusive 500-homer club ­ may be irredeemably tainted.

More than most sports, baseball lives on the purity of its statistics. Sosa's popularity moreover, and his role-model status as an impoverished immigrant who succeeded, makes the affair doubly shocking and the blow to baseball, already hit by falling attendances and reports of drug use, may be severe.

"Unfortunately, it's a dirty mark, when you consider all he's accomplished," Joe Torre, New York Yankees' manager, said. "Everybody's scratching their heads right now ... It's embarrassing."