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On This Date in Sports July 15, 1994: The Great Bat Caper

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

As they play a key game for first place, the Chicago White Sox ask umpires to check the bat of Albert Belle, suspecting that the Cleveland Indians slugger is using a corked bat. This leads Jason Grimsley to sneak into the Umpire’s room at Comiskey Park and switch bats. However, the bat theft is quickly discovered and Belle’s real bat tests positive for cork, leading to a ten-game suspension.

The 1994 season was a new beginning for baseball, as expanded to a new round as each league was realigned into three division with the introduction of a Wild Card. Coincidently the Cleveland Indians who had not been in a legitimate pennant race in 35 years had been battling the Chicago White Sox all season for first place in the American League Central. The Indians revival was spurred on by the opening of their new stadium Jacobs Field.

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As baseball was heating up for its second half drive coming out of the All-Star Break, the Indians and White Sox were set to play a three-game series at Comiskey Park. Entering play that Friday, the White Sox held a slim one-game lead over the Tribe, who also was in Wild Card position under the leadership of Mike Hargrove. Looking to play some gamesmanship and hearing whispers of a corked bat, Gene Lamont the manager of the White Sox asked umpires to examine the bat of Indians slugger Albert Belle when he came to the plate for the first time in the first inning. Before Belle even came to the plate the Indians had plated a run as Carlos Baerga singled across Kenny Lofton. Lofton had led off the game and stole second off White Sox starter Jack McDowell. The move stymied the Indians rally as Belle grounded to third and McDowell was able to avoid further damage.

While the bat was sitting in the umpire’s room at Comiskey Park, Albert Belle realized he was in trouble as his bat was corked as suspected, in fact, all of his bats were corked. Not wanting to lose their top slugger, several members of the Indians began cooking up a scheme to switch bats, while the game was going on. Relief pitcher Jason Grimsley found a path to the Umpire’s room from the visitor’s clubhouse by crawling in the vent system. So, as Baerga drove in Lofton with a second run in the third, Grimsley was getting set for a Mission Impossible style break in to switch Belle’s corked bat with one of the bats used by Paul Sorento. The White Sox would get a run back in the third, as Ron Karkovice led off with a triple against Mark Clark and scored on a grounder off the bat of Ozzie Guillen.

Grimsley was able to pull off the switch, but the evidence he left behind was quickly discovered as the bats were clearly different as the bat he used were clearly identified as belonging to Paul Sorrento, while a ceiling tile was spotted out of place, leading to Chicago Police being called on to investigate the break-in. Meanwhile, the Indians added another run in the fifth as Eddie Murray doubled in Carlos Baerga to make it 3-1.

The White Sox would score a run in the seventh, as Julio Franco scored on a grounder off the bat of Lance Johnson, but it would be all they got as Jeff Russell stranded the tying run at third by getting Joey Cora to end the game on a grounder to Baerga at second. With the win the Indians improve to 52-34 on the season, moving into a virtue tie with the White Sox who were 53-35 after the game. However, the main story was who switched the bat as umpires quickly fingered a member of the Indians as the culprit in the bat great bat switch.

With police and former FBI agent hired to investigate, the Indians quickly came clean and allowed Albert Belle’s bat to be examined. Upon examination, cork was discovered, leading to a ten-game suspension. Belle would appeal and the suspension would be reduced to seven games. However, in the end, none of it mattered as the 1994 season came to a sudden halt on August 12, when the players went on strike, that led to the entire postseason and World Series getting canceled. When the season was canceled the Indians were one game behind the White Sox at 66-47, holding a two-game lead over the Baltimore Orioles for the Wild Card spot.

Five years after the great bat caper, Jason Grimsley who had previously been unnamed came clean and admitted his role, saying that Albert Belle offered him a round of golf for changing the bats.