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A few words on cocaine in baseball

Mar 17, 2010, 4:22 PM EDT

Dale Berra.jpgSince the Ron Washington news broke a couple of hours ago I’ve gotten several comments and have seen random mutterings from the blogosphere suggesting that a baseball figure being connected to cocaine represents something different and new and horrible. I laughed at this at first, but then I realized that if you’re under the age of 35 or so, the cocaine-crazy days of baseball in the 1980s may be something you just sort of missed.  So, for history’s sake, let’s take a little refresher course, shall we?

Most of what we know about cocaine use among baseball players came from what came to be known as the Pittsburgh Drug Trials in 1985.  There, a couple of small-time coke dealers were tried and convicted in federal prosecutions. The amount of drugs they trafficked were relatively meager as far as these things go, but the cases gained national exposure because of the witnesses who testified against them: Dale Berra, Lee Lacy, Lee Mazzilli, John Milner, Dave Parker, Rod Scurry, Willie Aikens, Vida Blue, Enos Cabell, Keith Hernandez, Jeffrey Leonard, Tim Raines, and Lonnie Smith, among others.  All users. While none of the ballplayers were targeted for prosecution, baseball and its gigantic cocaine habit was on trial.

The testimony revealed all manner of craziness. John Milner admitted that he bought coke in a bathroom stall at Three Rivers Stadium. Keith Hernandez added that about 40 percent of all Major League Baseball players were using cocaine in 1980, and described it as “the love affair year between baseball and the drug.” The famous story in which Tim Raines was described as only sliding
into bases headfirst so as not to break the vial of drugs in his back pocket came out at this time.  Dave Parker was the biggest name called before the court, his testimony set forth some of the earliest cocaine use among those called, and in many ways he came to symbolize the drug trials.

But more alarming than any specific player’s testimony was the overall picture that was painted of baseball and cocaine. It was a story of players leaving the ballpark at 10:30PM, snorting coke until 2AM, not falling asleep until 6AM, waking up with the shakes and bloody noses right before it was time to head back to the park, and then arriving at the clubhouse, as tired as a dog, right before BP.  What to do? Why pop some greenies of course.  After a playing a game in which the players were not really able to see the baseball, the cycle would start again. There’s no telling how badly the quality of baseball suffered in the late 70s through the mid 80s as a result. More importantly, there’s no telling how many lives were destroyed. Reliever Rod Scurry was the most notable casualty, but there were others.

No ballplayer went to jail out of all of this,* as they were all granted immunity. It was a controversial decision at the time, but it was at least consistent with prosecutors’ policy to pursue drug dealers as opposed to drug users. Unlike most cases, however, baseball’s cocaine trials involved users who were wealthy and dealers — and they were only dealers in the loosest sense of the term — who were really a bunch of sad sacks. The most notable defendant was a caterer. One guy was a HVAC repairman. Another was a bartender. One was the freakin’ Pirates’ mascot.

The fallout? See if this sounds familiar:  The commissioner went nuts, acting gobsmacked and calling drugs the game’s biggest problem, despite the fact that there was considerable evidence establishing that he and the owners knew it was going on the whole time. The union, when pressed to agree to drug testing, balked, citing privacy concerns and standing adamantly opposed to mandatory drug tests.

Even more familiar: Both parties remained far more interested in financial issues — collusion, the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations, etc. — than they did in drugs.  At one point the Commissioner actually approached the union to ask if they’d agree to a toothless drug testing regime for public relations purposes.  Ultimately a probable cause drug regime in which players would only be tested if there was good reason to do so was implemented, but after that proved ineffective it was basically dropped.  Many people believe that if baseball would have gotten its act together with cocaine in the 1980s that the steroids scourge that would erupt a few short years later would never have occurred. Hard to say if that’s true or not.

Ron Washington was a product of the Kansas City Royals in the 1970s, a team that was particularly hard hit by coke.  The prime of his playing career, such as it was, took place in the “love affair” years of the early 80s.  He’s suggesting today that last summer, at age 57, was the first time he ever tried cocaine. I have no idea what he did back in the 80s, but I’m skeptical. And even if he’s telling the truth, his judgment — based on everything he saw back in the 80s — was pretty piss poor.  Cocaine came closer to destroying baseball than anything since the Black Sox scandal.  How a man who lived through it all the first time could get roped into it in 2009 is frankly startling.

Anyway, the more you know . . .

*This statement is potentially misleading. While none of the ballplayers associated with the Pittsburgh trial were prosecuted, in 1983, Willie Wilson, Willie Aikens, Vida Blue, and Jerry Martin of the Kansas City Royals were convicted of conspiracy to buy cocaine from undercover federal agents and were senteced to 90 days in federal prison.  In the mid-90s, Aikens was convicted of dealing crack. He’s been in prison for 15 years or so, and won’t be getting out for two more he was released in 2008 [oops!]. It’s probably worth noting, however, that there was a strong sense that baseball and compliant prosecutors did much to make the Royals’ case out to be an isolated thing.  The larger problem of cocaine in baseball was not truly acknowledged until after the Pittsburgh trials two years later.

Thanks to Ron Rollins and Rob Neyer — a couple of Royals guys, natch — for reminding me of this.

  1. RobRob - Mar 17, 2010 at 10:13 PM

    I was 11 years old in 1985 and wasn’t a huge baseball fan, but the cocaine/baseball story was big news in NYC. I remember it mostly about the Mets, but maybe that was actually a few years later. In any event, it was a huge story towards the end of the decade, which tells you more about the decade than it does about the story.

  2. Joe L - Mar 17, 2010 at 10:57 PM

    Conspiracy is an agreement undertaken to effect an unlawful purpose or unlawful end (i.e., commit a crime). It need not be successful, and the goal need not be accomplished; as soon as the agreement is made, the independent crime of conspiracy is committed. For example, the government often goes after gang members (and, these days, “terrorists”) for conspiracy prior to any of the planned crimes being committed. However, if you are successful – let’s say, for example, you and I agree to pool our money, buy a brick of cocaine, and then sell it together – we could not only be convicted of possession and distribution, but also the separate and independent crimes of conspiracy to possess and conspiracy to distribute. Conspiracy need not be proven by “hard” evidence, but is rather often proven by circumstantial evidence.
    It’s also a common “fall-back” plea in large complex cases, i.e, a person is indicted for number of felonies, but pleads to conspiracy.
    Hope that helps.

  3. Craig Calcaterra - Mar 17, 2010 at 10:59 PM

    God, you’re sexy when you go on about the law like that.

  4. Ron - Mar 18, 2010 at 3:53 AM

    So people can be convicted of a crime for talking about committing the crime, but not actually doing it? And people thought the Patriot Act was bad. Interesting.
    Thanks for the info.

  5. Grant - Mar 18, 2010 at 8:07 AM

    A commenter above noted that baseball’s issues often reflect the national zeitgeist. I think this may be the case here, too. Anecdotally, cocaine is on its way back in (if not fully back in).

    The difference between now and the 80s, however, is the new mindset of the players. Players are fitness freaks these days. A lot of them don’t even drink during the season. The steroids thing was unfortunate, but also a reflection of the new fitness mania. Perhaps we won’t see a resurgence in ridiculous partying from active ballplayers, but we will from the coaches.

    I don’t know, I’m bkind of rambling. But in our wider culture cocaine seems to be on the rise, but fitness is flying high. I wonder what the implications for baseball will be.

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