BALTIMORE, AUG. 11 -- The bat is the latest suspect in the continuing saga of What's With All the Home Runs This Season?

There has been a titanic leap in home run production this season. Through last weekend, 28 players had surpassed or tied career highs in homers, and the overall pace is 20 percent ahead of last season's record rate.

Everybody's asking why.

The first suspected culprit, you recall, was the supposedly livelier ball.

Recently, pitchers Joe Niekro (suspended 10 days for allegedly scuffing balls with an emery board) and Kevin Gross (newly suspended 10 days for having sandpaper in his glove) have helped put the attention elsewhere.

Now, the focus is on bat tampering. The in-house term is "corking," and involves a bat, a drill, some cork or shredded rubber and a little time.

To cork a bat, one usually drills a six- to eight-inch hole in the top of the barrel. The hole then is filled with rubber or cork, and plugged. Next, the end of the bat is sanded and stained with rosin to mask evidence of tampering. The lighter weight means more bat speed, which should, theoretically, increase the distance a hit ball will travel.

Atlanta's Graig Nettles had a personal involvement. In 1974, Nettles used "Superball" (a lively rubber ball) in place of cork, but was caught when the top of the bat he was swinging flew off and the rubber balls flew out.

The late Norm Cash of the 1960-74 Detroit Tigers told of having corked his bats, and New York Mets center fielder Len Dykstra wrote in his book "Nails" that he corked his bat in the minors, although not in the majors.

No one has been ejected for bat tampering this season, but the accusations are growing. Last week, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth issued a directive to umpires allowing managers to ask that one bat per game be confiscated from an opponent if the manager suspects tampering.

Rich Levin, a spokesman for Ueberroth, said the directive merely provides an avenue for managers -- "an option to do this. It doesn't order them to do it."

The directive was issued, Levin said, in the wake of "leaguewide" indications of bat tampering, although he would not specify any particular team or say which league. "It just seemed like the time to look into the bats," he said.

But if you listened to the Baltimore Orioles, you would believe the whole thing is a product of someone's active imagination.

Manager Cal Ripken Sr. said he discussed tampering with coach Frank Robinson after umpires told Ripken about his new option.

"I haven't at any time this year felt that somebody used an illegal bat against us. At that point we may have played 109, 110 games," Ripken said.

"I've been in both leagues," said Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley. "I've never been on a team that's used loaded bats. The ball's a little tighter than it's been in the past."

"That's something {corking} I'm not aware of. I know there's nobody on this team," said outfielder Larry Sheets, one of two major-leaguers (Atlanta's Ozzie Virgil is the other) to hit at least 20 homers this season in less than 300 at-bats.

"The more bats they test or X-ray, they'll find there's not nearly as many people using {corked} bats as they think," Crowley said.

Sheets noted that the question of bat tampering seems "more prominent in the National League." All of the bat confiscations thus far have come in the NL. The most celebrated involves the Mets' Howard Johnson, whose bat was taken away in two games last week, against St. Louis and Chicago.

The New York Post reported Monday that a bat allegedly belonging to Johnson was taken by an unidentified third party and compared with a regulation bat by X-ray July 29, and that discrepancies were found.

The Associated Press reported Cardinals Manager Whitey Herzog saying the X-ray "showed the edges of one bat, and it showed the edges of another and something inside."

"I don't care what he {Herzog} says anymore," Johnson said Sunday. "He can say what he wants. He's convinced that I'm doing something illegal, and I don't know what it's going to take to change his mind."

Reached yesterday in Pittsburgh, where the Cardinals are playing the Pirates, Herzog said "I don't want to talk about that {incident}, okay?" and hung up.

Over the weekend, after Pittsburgh's R.J. Reynolds hit a two-run homer against Montreal, Expos Manager Buck Rodgers had umpires confiscate Reynolds' bat. Later, after Montreal's Tim Raines hit a two-run homer, Pirates Manager Jim Leyland had Raines' bat taken.

"If somebody questions one of mine, I'll question theirs if only to take somebody's favorite bat away," Leyland said. "I'll be the most surprised guy in the world if Tim Raines' bat is loaded."

Asked if confiscation would provide any psychological benefit, Ripken said, "if I was to go up and confiscate Wade Boggs' bat, Wade Boggs would go back to the dugout and {then} hit a double or a single or a homer."