The Astros’ elaborate sign-stealing scheme is a black eye on Major League Baseball, the Astros themselves, and countless cocky Astros fans that were positive their innocent little team didn’t cheat. But of course the cheating doesn’t end with the Astros. Already the Red Sox are implicated in a similar scandal, and there are reports that half a dozen (or more) teams were doing the exact same thing.
One of them might be the Indians. But until that comes to light, the only major cheating scandal in Cleveland occurred almost 30 years ago in the hallowed halls and hollow ceiling of old Comiskey Park.
July 15, 1994, Chicago. The Cleveland Indians are facing the Chicago White Sox, and Albert Belle is on pace for his greatest season to date. He wouldn’t blow up Fernando Vina rounding the bases for another two years, but he was already on his way to a 36-homer season. He wouldn’t get to swing his bat on this day, though, as White Sox manager Gene Lamont suspected him of cheating. Not with steroids, mind you, but something much easier to notice and prove — a corked bat.
The act of corking a bat isn’t that difficult. You drill a hole in the bat, fill it with ground up wine stoppers, and supposedly you can hit a ball a million miles. The science isn’t all there — corking a bat improves your bat speed, but it’s not going to transform you from Ichiro to McGwire. Still, cheating is cheating, whether you’re injecting muscles into your butt meat, drilling a hole in your bat to swing a little quicker, or banging on a trash can to steal signs. It’s all cheating and it all deserves to be called out. In this case, doing so kicked off one of the wildest events in MLB history.
As per the MLB rules, teams are allowed to challenge one of the opponent’s bats per game, and following those rules, umpire Dave Phillips investigated the bat at Lamont’s request. He noticed a potential drill hole in the top of it, but determined it required further investigation, so it was sent to the umpire’s dressing room for safe keeping.
Corking a bat, like banging a trash can, is not a one-person job. So, naturally, the Indians knew Belle did it. So they came up with a plan. They would have fifth-year pitcher Jason Grimsley replace the bat with that of Paul Sorrento and no one would have to know Belle was cheating the game.
A full two years before Tom Cruise would do similarthings in 1996’s Mission Impossible, Grimsley crawled with a flashlight in his mouth through the ceiling of Comiskey Park’s underbelly, found the room where the bat was kept, switched it out, and left.
Unfortunately, he also trashed the room, left the bat shiny and clean, and didn’t completely scratch Paul Sorrento’s name off the decoy bat. The umpires weren’t fooled. They called the police, the FBI was brought in, and eventually everything was pieced together — probably without much trouble. Grimsley managed to keep his part in the whole ordeal a secret until 1999, where he revealed the details to Buster Olney at the New York Times.
As a result of the heist, Major League Baseball demanded the real bat from the Indians and sawed it in half in front of Albert Belle. He would be suspended 10 games, and have it appealed down to seven. That ended the short, but amazing, saga of Belle’s corked bat.
It’s one of those things that probably wouldn’t happen today, but in the age of Twitter and 24-hour sports news coverage, I would love nothing more than to have seen how wild it would have been. Imagine the Jomboy videos. Imagine the hastily assembled panel on MLB Tonight debating whether or not Belle actually did it. Imagine how many internet sleuths would have pieced together the clues; had a full blueprint of Comiskey Park analyzed before the game even ended.
But alas, all we have is the Astros being scummy and winning a World Series. Let it be a lesson that they may have cheated in spectacular, terrible fashion, but they still can’t hold a candle to Jason Grimsley and Albert Belle.