On July 15, 1994, the Chicago White Sox traveled to Jacobs Field to take on the Cleveland Indians in a heated battle for the top of the American League Central division. What started as a typical division rivalry game would end up becoming one of the most eventful nights in the history of Major League Baseball.
Prior to the game, White Sox manager Gene Lamont was given word that Indians power hitter Albert Belle was using a corked bat. In the MLB, using a corked bat is considered a form of cheating. Having cork in the middle of a player’s bat allows for the bat to be lighter, letting hitters swing it at a quicker velocity. Although now proven false, it was also believed at the time that it made the ball “bounce” off of the bat, creating a trampoline effect.
Prior to Belle, only two players in MLB history had been caught with corked bats: Craig Nettles in 1974, and Billy Hatcher in 1987. Each of them received a 10-day suspension, setting a precedent. So, when Lamont challenged Belle’s bat prior to the game, leading to home plate umpire Dave Phillips confiscating it and locking it in the umpires’ dressing room, the Indians knew they’d be losing their star hitter for 10 days in the middle of an important fight for the division.
During the sixth inning of the game, the Indians organization asked fifth-year starting pitcher Jason Grimsley to pull off a mission typically seen in either a Mission: Impossible or Die Hard movie. The team knew there was a false ceiling above the umpires’ dressing room, which would allow someone to crawl through to get in. Grimsley was given the assignment to crawl through the ceiling and replace Belle’s bat with one that wasn’t corked. Grimsley grabbed the bat of teammate Paul Sorrento (another one of Belle’s bats couldn’t be used since all of his bats were corked), climbed up through the ceiling, and began his journey to the umpires’ dressing room.
Grimsley was able to accomplish the goal: He crawled to the room, dropped in, replaced the bat, and crawled back up and out. However, he didn’t do so without leaving a trail of evidence. When Phillips and his officiating crew made their way back to their dressing room after the game, they noticed chunks of the false ceiling were scattered around the room, and parts of the ceiling itself were bent. To add to that, they realized the bat in the room was not the same bat they had confiscated, since it was not as polished as Belle’s bat, and it was branded with Paul Sorrento’s name.
The authorities were immediately alerted, and they confirmed the umpires’ suspicions. Their report suggested someone had entered the room by crawling through the ceiling, replaced the bat, and exited back through the ceiling.
After this investigation, Bud Selig, then the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, demanded the Indians turn over Belle’s original bat, or he would call in the FBI to investigate and possibly prosecute. If the franchise cooperated and returned it, there would be no repercussions for the team. The Indians obliged, turning in the bat that was taken from the umpires’ dressing room. The bat was then x-rayed and sawed in half with both Belle and Indians’ general manager John Hart present as witnesses. It was determined the bat was corked, and Belle was given a 10-game suspension, which was lowered to 7 games upon appeal.
Despite the conclusion of the investigation, people were still intrigued with the break in and the replacement of the bats. Throughout the investigation, it as not revealed who the bat caper was that pulled off the heist. After it had finished, Hart admitted that the burglar was someone within the Indians organization.
“Obviously, it was someone internally with the Indians,” Hart said to the New York Times in a 1994 article. “I look at it as more of a misguided sense of loyalty with a teammate than anything else. The key is to keep it in perspective for what it is. This is a baseball team and guys that stay together and play together.”
The public didn’t know Grimsley was the one to pull off the heist until 1999 when he was with the New York Yankees, where he admitted to being the ceiling crawler in a New York Times article. In the article, Grimsley laid out the intricacies of the plan. He spoke about how he had done surveillance of the situation earlier in the game and created a mental map of the mission. Then, with the help of a member of the Indians organization, he climbed through the ceiling in the office of Indians manager Mike Hargrove with Sorrento’s bat and a yellow flashlight.
Through the adventure, he was nearly caught twice: once by a member of the grounds crew when he miscalculated which room he was above, and then by an unknown person who entered the umpires’ dressing room shortly after he climbed back into the ceiling.
“That was one of the biggest adrenaline rushes I’ve ever experienced,” Grimsley told New York Times author Buster Olney at the time.
Despite this admittance of guilt from Grimsley, Major League Baseball held up their end of the deal, and no other member of the Indians organization other than Belle received punishment for the event.
Belle’s suspension ultimately had zero factor on the Indians’ season. The MLB suspended operations and canceled the rest of the season and playoffs due to the players going on strike before Belle’s suspension ended.
The strike-shortened season of 1994 had many intriguing storylines that didn’t have a chance to finish. Whether it was the surging Montreal Expos, or both Matt Williams and Ken Griffey, Jr. chasing the then-single season home run record of 61, the game of “what if” can only be played with these scenarios. Albert Belle, Jason Grimsley, a corked bat, and possibly the biggest heist in MLB history still stands out amongst the memories of the shortened season, and allowed the fans to see at least one storyline played out from beginning to end.
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