In what has to be a first for a superstar, Sammy Sosa announced he does not want his bat to do the talking.
Think about that for a moment. Every time a ballplayer gets caught doing something he shouldn't, he tells us to forget what's being said about him and look at what he does on the field instead. But Sosa is still slumping just badly enough that calling attention to his performance isn't much better than discussing how the cork that came flying out of shattered bat Tuesday night got there in the first place.
So he asks for more time
o comment.'' And so far, hometown fans have been willing to forgive if not forget and his teammates closed ranks around him and covered his back.
''For us to just put all that away and just go out and play baseball and overcome it, this team's got a lot of heart,'' said Mark Prior, the winner Sunday night in Chicago's 8-7 decision over the Yankees. ''I don't think anyone's going to question it anymore.''
But teams will continue to test it in the days ahead.
And how well his teammates continue to respond without their soon-to-be-suspended slugger could well determine whether ''Corkgate'' winds up as a footnote to Sosa's career or the beginning of the end of it.
Even before his bat exploded, Sosa had been in a tailspin since April 20, when he was beaned by Pittsburgh's Salomon Torres. He was hitting .333 before that date with 15 strikeouts. Since then, he's hitting less than .250, with 37 strikeouts. He had five home runs before that date and one since. He's gone 61 at-bats without a homer, his longest dry spell since he was extended to 62 in 1997.
Those numbers are why so many people were skeptical about Sosa's explanation for the corked bat; desperate times, after all, sometimes require desperate measures.
But if they've been distracted, the rest of the Cubs has done a good job of hiding it. They've managed to hang around the top of the National League Central despite Sosa's earlier time away and the feeding frenzy of last week, going 4-2 against the Devil Rays and Yankees in the half-dozen games since. In the bargain, they've kept a huge weight off their slugger's broad shoulders.
Asked when he might return to carrying the Cubs instead of the other way around, Sosa said, ''A couple more games, I think. Whatever it takes. In the meantime, we're playing great.''
Sosa missed three weeks last month to have the nail on his big right toe removed and the Cubs went 10-7 over that stretch. Most of the credit has landed on manager Dusty Baker's desk, but his job is about to get much harder.
Right after beating the Yankees, the Cubs packed up Sunday night and headed to Baltimore for their next interleague series. During the East Coast swing, Sosa plans to stop by league offices in New York, where his appeal of the eight-game suspension will be heard. Though nobody on the team said as much, the consensus was that Sosa had played his last game for a while.
''He's going to get suspended next week and hopefully we can do the same thing that we did while he was out,'' said teammate Moises Alou, one of Sosa's closest pals on the ballclub.
''Somebody else has to pull more weight,'' Baker said. ''We're going to come up with a hero. We just don't know how that hero is.''
On Sunday night, it was Alou. After a single and Sosa's walk, Alou drove an 0-1 pitch from Yankees starter Andy Pettitte in the first over the left-field bleachers and out onto Waveland Avenue.
''Made all the difference in the world,'' said Billy Williams, the sweet-swinging Hall of Fame outfielder who's served the Cubs as player, assistant coach, hitting instructor and is currently special assistant to general manager Jim Hendry.
''It meant a lot of guys could relax and concentrate on just their assignment instead of pressing and trying to win the game by themselves.''
Williams does not mention Sosa by name, but there's no question whom he has in mind. And a moment later, he starts demonstrating all the hopeful developments he's noticed in Sosa's recent at-bats.
He's seen Sosa's timing improve, not to mention less panic when he tries to push off on his right foot. As if to prove the point, Sosa went 1-for-3 Sunday night, smacking a single through the infield that was his 2,000th hit and his first RBI in some time.
The shame, as Williams sees it, is that the suspension is almost certain to set Sosa back yet again. The troubling part is what could happen if his teammates fail to keep covering up Sosa's mistakes and instead blame him for sabotaging their season.
''He's still 'The Man,''' Williams said, ''and if the run support dries up, fair or not, Sammy is the one that people will demand an explanation from.''
Good luck with that. Sosa won't be in the lineup for a while, and when he comes back, getting an answer from him or his bats isn't going to be easy.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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