In 1994, Albert Belle was having one of the best seasons of his life.
The five-time All-Star was in the prime of his career, and in the shortened MLB season being played in the wake of a strike, he hit 36 home runs, boasted a .357 batting average, and was on pace for a monster year.
The problem with Belle (as with many of the sluggers at the time) was that he may or may not have been cheating—and by that I mean he was definitely cheating.
While Belle was a menacing figure at the plate due to his pure size, he wasn’t accused of cheating with steroids (I mean, he was, but the same could be said for anyone with an impressive home run habit at the time) but rather corking his bat to gain an advantage at the plate.
That was a decidedly illegal tactic, and other teams were getting increasingly suspicious Belle was violating the rules. That included the White Sox, who asked the umpires to take a closer look at his lumber during a game in 1994 and inadvertently sparked a pretty wild saga involving a heist that led to the FBI getting involved.
The wild story of Jason Grimsley crawling through the ceiling to track down Albert Belle’s corked bat
On July 15th, 1994, the team now known as the Cleveland Guardians was facing off against the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park.
In the first inning, White Sox manager Gene Lamont got a tip that Belle was using a corked bat. He notified the umpires, who confiscated the piece of equipment in question and stowed it in their dressing room to take a closer look after the game (it’s a bit odd they opted to postpone the investigation and allow Belle to remain in the contest, but hey, that’s the route they opted to take).
This presented a bit of an issue, as Belle was very aware the bat that had been seized was 100% corked. Cleveland was also aware that he’d be suspended if the MLB discovered that was the case, and couldn’t really afford to lose the superstar while in the midst of a battle for the AL Central.
Thankfully, they were able to come up with a potential solution—although it required someone affiliated with the team to commit a crime.
It’s not clear who hatched the plan in question, but what is clear is relief pitcher Jason Grimsley agreed to retrieve Belle’s bat and replace it with an uncorked one that belonged to Paul Sorrento.
Of course, Grimsley couldn’t simply stroll into the umpire’s room and swap them, so he decided to pull a Mission: Impossible by climbing into the ceiling of an adjacent room with a flashlight in his mouth and Sorrento’s bat in tow before dropping into the adjoining area to pull off the switch.
This sounds too absurd to be true, but I promise you that it actually happened in real life.
After the game, umpire Dave Phillips noticed the bat was different—which probably had something to do with the fact that it was emblazoned with Sorrento’s signature—and called the Chicago Police Department. The White Sox threatened to file charges against the then-unknown burglar, and the FBI was eventually called in to assist with the investigation.
At that point, Cleveland realized they’d probably gone a bit too far in their quest to protect their most valuable asset. They agreed to give Belle’s bat back to the MLB, and after officials sawed it in half to determine it was, indeed, corked, they suspended Belle for 10 games (he appealed the ruling, and the punishment was reduced to seven).
Criminal charges were never filed, although it would’ve been hard to do so when you consider the law enforcement officials who looked into the case were never actually able to determine who’d broken into the ump’s room; the true culprit remained a mystery until Grimsley came forward to reveal what he’d done five years later in an interview with The New York Times.
All things considered, this has to be one of the craziest sports stories I’ve ever come across.
I can certainly understand why Cleveland felt motivated to protect Belle, but a suspension doesn’t really seem like a huge deal compared to the headache the team found itself dealing with after a plan that was never really thought all the way through quickly fell apart; the fact that the franchise basically got away with it without any additional punishment is pretty mindblowing.
Grimsley also avoided any retroactive sanctions for the role he played, but his career came to an end in 2006 after he was embroiled in a massive scandal stemming from his use and alleged distribution of HGH and other performance-enhancing drugs.