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Telander: The inside story of Sammy Sosa’s corked bat

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



The bat had been handled.

The bat had been examined.

The bat had been X-rayed.

But it had never been CAT-scanned.

A casual viewer could see that the two-foot-long shard had been doctored somehow. An inch of cork lay exposed where God surely had put maple.

The X-rays were unremarkable, however. The barrel didn’t show much. Neither did the concave top or the glossy black sides. You look at a piece of wood long enough, and you’ll start snoring.

But when the bat exploded in Sammy Sosa’s hands on that balmy night of June 3, 2003, at Wrigley Field, with Sosa grounding out to second in the first inning against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, something changed for all time.

Corked bat?

Cheating?

Sammy didn’t know nothing. It was a batting-practice bat, maybe, he concluded. He’d taken it to the plate by accident.

Manager Dusty Baker didn’t know nothing.

“Dude, I don’t know,’’ the Dust-man said when I asked him if he had a clue about corked bats.

But why would he? He’d only been in baseball for 36 years.

So, Sammy’s corked bat lay semi-dormant. Well, not dormant. Former Cubs pitcher Mike Remlinger had grabbed it that night in 2003, after Sosa had been ejected from the game, and he kept it until the winter of 2010, when Grant DePorter, CEO of the Harry Caray’s Restaurant Group, bought the thing at auction for $16,567.

DePorter on the case

It sat in a case at Harry Caray’s Navy Pier and was as exciting as a doorstop.

DePorter has all kinds of Chicago sports memorabilia at his venues — from Paul Konerko’s grand-slam ball from the White Sox’ 2005 World Series to the Cubs’ Starlin Castro’s rookie debut batting gloves — and it seems the man in the suit never rests, never stops promoting.

And he listens. And what he heard from baseball fans was a buzz: Is that all there is to that stupid corked bat?

“I have a manager, Beth Heller, and her husband, Rich, is a radiologist,’’ DePorter says. “It struck me, ‘Why don’t we put this thing through a CAT scan? Those show you so much more.’ ’’

As he says this, DePorter is seated at a white-clothed table upstairs at the original Harry Caray’s on Kinzie Street, tie neatly knotted, as always, holding the remains of the black bat. Amazing, but the battered chunk, which he hands me, signifies in its jagged incompleteness the demise of Sosa’s career, reputation and, yes, the Cubs of the early 21st century.

But the promoter’s light bulb had gone off.

A CAT scan — the full name is Computerized Axial Tomography — uses radiation to give a sequential and much more detailed set of photos of soft tissue and bones.

“It is like cutting a loaf of bread into slices,’’ says Heller, who reads CAT scans the way we read newspapers. “Huge developments have occurred in the last five to eight years. CAT scans have given gorgeous images of mummies, for instance.’’

‘The detail is amazing’

Into a doughnut-shaped ­scanner at a local hospital the bat went.

“Ten minutes of hoopla,’’ Heller says. “Ten seconds in the machine.’’

And there, suddenly, at last, was revealed a marvelous feat of carpentry and engineering.

The cork in the bat begins an inch and a half below the beveled top, and it continues down the barrel for almost a foot. A circle the size of a 50-cent piece was drilled straight down, though slightly off center, until the barrel narrowed too much to continue farther.

The screw marks and angular tip of the drill at the bottom of the hole are clearly visible on the CAT scan images.

The cork is hard and likely ground up and glued and then tamped down into the hole like paste. The point of a corked bat, you see, is to lessen the weight in the barrel and thus increase bat speed. If there’s extra spring from the cork, all the better.

The plug at the top is wood-grained and solid, but the grain doesn’t run flush with the surrounding maple.

“I don’t think it’s the same wood,’’ Dr. Heller says. “I would say it’s another piece that was carefully fitted in.’’

Then the whole thing was varnished and painted black, and Sammy’s No. “21’’ was painted over the top in silver marker.

The video of the bat scan is, somehow, thrilling.

Hard to say why. The fact that the cheating was so professional? The fact that somebody did this at all?

“The detail is amazing,’’ Heller says. “It’s gorgeous.”

Voila! A piece of timber comes to life.

No end to ‘notorious stuff’

“When I went for the Bartman ball, that was a moment of insanity,’’ DePorter says now, meaning the ball that derailed the Cubs against the Marlins in the playoffs of that ill-fated 2003 season. DePorter got it for $117,000, and he blew it up.

“I had to keep that from going into a Florida Marlins museum.’’

The horror of that possibility stuns him yet. He sighs, even though all this is good business.

“I don’t just collect odd, weird stuff,’’ he insists. Which is true.

“Unfortunately, it’s just that the Cubs have a lot of notorious stuff.’’

And the drilling never ends.



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