Seventeen years ago today (July 15 – I realize I’m cutting it close, as it’s almost midnight) the Indians were playing the White Sox in Chicago. In the first inning, Chicago manager Gene Lamont requested that the umpires confiscate Albert Belle’s bat. Acting on a tip, Lamont suspected that Belle’s lumber was loaded with cork. It was impounded for safekeeping in the umpire’s office, while it would be sent to Major League Baseball’s offices in New York following the game for testing.
This is one of my all-time favorite “crazy moments” in baseball history. Not because of the fact that Belle got busted with an altered bat; unfortunately I’ve become almost desensitized to incidents of suspected cheating in baseball. In my opinion, what made this incident so incredible was what took place after the bat was “safely” locked in the umpires’ office at Comiskey Park. I can’t remember much about Jason Grimsley’s pitching career, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget that he broke into the umpires’ office and switched the corked bat with a clean one.
In case you haven’t heard the story (or just want to see it told again) it’s almost more suited for a scene in Oceans 11, rather than something that took place as a Major League Baseball game played out in the background. (Okay, so maybe it’s not quite as exciting as a caper from Oceans 11, but you have to admit it’s still a pretty elaborate plan). Grimsley scooted through a crawl space in the ceiling above the umpires’ office, dropped down, and swapped Belle’s bat with a Paul Sorrento model.
As if that wasn’t juicy enough, Omar Vizquel talked about the incident in his 2002 autobiography, “I can be naive at times, but I’m not stupid. Certainly not stupid enough to steal Albert’s corked bat and replace it with one that looked completely different — one that was autographed by Paul Sorrento. That wasn’t even a nice try. The problem, of course, was that all of Albert’s bats were corked.” Vince Fresso, the custodian of the umpires’ quarters, first noticed something was up in the sixth inning. There were clumps of insulation on the floor in the office and the ceiling tiles were out of place. MLB went so far as to dust the office for fingerprints and brought in Kevin Hallinan, a former FBI agent, to lead the investigation.
The umpire that actually confiscated the bat, Dave Phillips, did not initially think that Belle’s bat was corked. It looked as if the bat had never been tampered with, and there would normally be signs that someone had drilled to insert the cork. Phillips definitely noticed the switch though, because the confiscated bat had looked like a “shiny new bat,” while the bat in the office at the end of the game was dirty and sticky with pine tar. Marty Springstead, the American League Supervisor of Umpires, said that “In 3l years (in baseball), you think you’ve seen it all but you haven’t.”
Eventually the umpires got the real bat back, which was sent to New York for testing. Unsurprisingly, it contained cork and Belle was suspended for 10 games (a sentence that was later reduced to 7). I have to nominate Grimsley as team player of the year – he likely risked his own neck (and a confined and uncomfortable journey through the ceiling) in order to help his team/teammate. This whole episode still makes me shake my head in disbelief, 17 years later!