Because of the toe injury, Sosa says, "all I could do was this"—he gingerly pawed at the floor with his foot—"and it hurt too much to spin off my back foot. I hit off my front leg. No power."
Sosa played through the injury until one day he told Alou, "Mo, I can't take it anymore." Alou persuaded him to tell the training staff. Sosa went on the disabled list on May 10 for the first time in seven years. He underwent a surgical procedure to remove the nail from the toe, relieving the pain. The nail has since regrown without a problem.
Sosa returned to the lineup on May 30. Four days later, with only six home runs in 137 at bats, he took a corked bat to the plate in a game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He later said he had used it to put on displays for fans in batting practice. The bat broke in half, revealing his dirty little secret. Sosa was suspended for seven games. He apologized, calling it a one-time incident.
"In this country," manager Dusty Baker says, "when you admit a mistake, you get forgiven quickly. People are more likely to give you a reprieve when you admit a mistake instead of trying to make excuses."
For some, however, that's not enough. "It's not forgotten," says one NL West player. "I still have a problem with it. As time goes by, people will forget, but players still talk about it. I hear guys wisecracking when he hits one, 'I wonder if that one was corked.' But some guys have good p.r. Sammy came out right away and said it was a mistake, but it'll never convince me he didn't know the bat was corked. Guys know their bats. If it was Barry Bonds, he'd be blasted and the criticism would be nonstop. But Sammy is a likable guy, always smiling."
Others believe that Sosa's mere accomplishments since the incident are sufficient to remove the stigma. "Absolutely," says Hall of Fame baseball writer Jerome Holtzman, Major League Baseball's historian. "He's overcome it by going out there and playing well and because of all the good he's done for the game. I thought it was much ado about nothing. There have been 10,000 corked bats used in the game, and a few have been exposed."
Hartford Courant baseball writer Jack O'Connell, secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers Association of America, agrees. "I never got on him too much in the first place," O'Connell says. "I had a feeling it was done out of desperation—the fact that he had been hit in the head and the toe injury. It wasn't as if they found a whole fleet of corked bats. The other thing is, he didn't cry about it or say, like Raul Mondesi did, 'People are picking on me because I'm Dominican.' "
O'Connell also thinks that Sosa's Hall of Fame prospects will suffer little damage. "Listen, I've already had one guy tell me he's not voting for Mark McGwire his first year because of the andro issue, so there will always be some people," O'Connell says. "But [notorious spitballer] Gaylord Perry is in the Hall of Fame. I guess that's the answer to that question. With all Sammy's done, I don't think this will get in his way at all."
Not everyone is so sure. "People might forget about it now," says Giants pitcher Jason Schmidt, "but when it's time for him to be considered for the Hall of Fame, I'm sure some people will remember and say, 'What if?' I don't think all the fans are forgiving. Every time I turn on the TV to a Cubs game, somebody is throwing cork on the field. When people look back on Sammy's career, that [stigma] will always be there. But people love to see the home runs, so they're not saying much now."
Sosa homered in his first game back from the suspension and hasn't stopped hitting since. At week's end he ranked seventh in the league in slugging percentage, needed only two home runs to become the sixth player with nine straight 30-homer seasons (joining Jimmie Foxx, Bonds, Lou Gehrig, Eddie Mathews and Mike Schmidt) and needed 22 RBIs to become the first player in NL history to drive in 100 runs nine years in a row.