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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. Jason @ IIATMS - Mar 17, 2010 at 4:35 PM

    The more blow you know….
    Nice work, CC. Looking fwd to that book on the drug trials.
    Can we get Pete Rose in the HOF now?

  2. HappyTom - Mar 17, 2010 at 4:38 PM

    Funny, I was just thinking, “He played in the ’80′s. Surprise, surprise.”

  3. Andrew @ NYaT - Mar 17, 2010 at 4:40 PM

    In 2002, Alan Schwarz wrote a piece for ESPN about this (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/print?id=1406651&type=columnist)
    My favorite looking back is this passage with baseball’s favorite phony:
    Like so many players today when faced with questions about steroids, Keith Hernandez in 1985 vigorously and indignantly denied “any involvement with cocaine, ever,” and yet four months later took the stand and described playing high and waking up in shaking fits.
    One of the kids who couldn’t help but hear of it was a 10-year-old in Miami named Alex Rodriguez.
    “As a fan, you don’t want to believe it. It’s surreal,” Rodriguez recalls. “My hero was Keith Hernandez. If you had said anything bad about Keith I would call you a liar. It tarnished the purity of the game.”

  4. Ron - Mar 17, 2010 at 4:42 PM

    Craig, in 1983, Willie Wilson, Willie Aikens, Vida Blue, and Jerry Martin, all of the Royals, were all convicted of conspiracy to buy cocaine from undercover federal agents. They were senteced to 90 days in federal prison, and did 81, by getting time of for good behavior.
    The all missed the beginning of the season for this. It wasn’t directly related to the Pittsburgh issue, but was cocaine-related.
    As a lawyer, could you explain the conspiracy thing, as that has always confused me.

  5. Phil - Mar 17, 2010 at 4:42 PM

    A couple of data points and a contrary opinion. For a very long time, psychiatrists and psychologists classified cocaine as a drug that could create a psychological dependency but not a physical addiction. That has changed, but that change of thinking was just beginning in the ’80s and didn’t fully take hold until after the period you are talking about. But the party line was that coke was harmless fun while heroin was the really bad stuff.
    Second, this was about cocaine the powder, not crack. It was crack that finally drove the nail in the coffin of coke being a non-addicting drug.
    I have to disagree with the opinion that the cocaine use of the ’80s nearly destroyed the game. Yes, it brought out the same collection of the Perpetually Pious that we see and hear on steroids. But the game stayed healthy during the period. Attendance increased (as did salaries). Sure, there was the strike in ’81 and collusion later, but compared to the upheaval in ’94, things were fairly peaceful.
    You have to remember that a lot of folks in society as a whole were using “toot” as a recreational endeavor pretty regularly. You also have to remember that the main advertising demographic in 1980 had come of age in the ’60s and had yet to become the tight-assed old farts we see today at Tea Party rallies.

  6. Alec in MN - Mar 17, 2010 at 4:43 PM

    Great information, Craig – thanks. I’m an avid baseball fan and appreciator of history, but even so – being part of the under-35 crowd you referenced, this is all news to me. Definitely puts the steroid era in perspective.

  7. Rick James - Mar 17, 2010 at 4:46 PM

    Cocaine is a hell of a drug..

  8. Bob R. - Mar 17, 2010 at 4:47 PM

    I do not get the Pete Rose mention. His case has nothing to do with drugs, and his omission from the HOF is a decision of the HOF, not baseball from which he is banned because he violated a long-standing rule. There was no such rule about drugs.

  9. Craig Calcaterra - Mar 17, 2010 at 4:49 PM

    Ron — I just updated with the KC stuff. Thanks for reminding me.

  10. sjs1959 - Mar 17, 2010 at 5:02 PM

    Pete Rose played in the 70s and 80s, too.
    I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’……

  11. jwb - Mar 17, 2010 at 5:05 PM

    For those of you who may have missed it, cocaine was rather popular 30 years ago.
    http://reason.com/assets/mc/_ATTIC/Image/jsullum/time_cocaine_cover.jpg

  12. Ron - Mar 17, 2010 at 5:08 PM

    Craig, no problem. As you said, it was isolated from the Pittsburgh situation, but it directly affected the Royals of the early 80′s.
    They dumped everyone but Wilson, and the players who replaced them eventually won a World Series two years later.
    Oh, no, wait. Cocaine is a bad thing.

  13. Charles Gates - Mar 17, 2010 at 5:09 PM

    For those who have longer teeth than I, back during the time of the trial, were people incessantly ranting, ‘What about the children?’
    As I would have still been wearing short pants in 1985, if preceeding generations joined harmoniously in this mantra, I’d like to thank them for making this world a better place for me. If they did not, then who do I blame? And what government official is going to make a public apology on their behalf?
    (recaptcha: thees written)

  14. jwb - Mar 17, 2010 at 5:17 PM

    Re: Pete Rose
    Several of his gambling associates were also convicted coke dealers.

  15. Jack Marshall - Mar 17, 2010 at 5:20 PM

    It would seem to me that the history Craig reviewed (which I already was aware of) makes Washington’s conduct more serious, not less. Baseball players using cocaine diminished the game, and Washington knows it better than most. Nor do I see how the cocaine situation puts steroids “in perspective.” One was a recreational drug, the other was a means of cheating. The similarity? Nobody forced any of the users to do so. Lax MLB rules didn’t make anyone break laws, breach their duties to their teams, and use banned substances. Plenty of players had the integrity not to, and shrugging off those who did take the drugs is unfair to the rest.

  16. Josh - Mar 17, 2010 at 5:23 PM

    I reiterate that Ron Washington, the 57-year-old of today, doing drugs is a non-story. When a 16-year-old gets his hands on a case of beer and shows up to dinner trashed, that’s shocking. When a 57-year-old man does it, it’s shrug-worthy. Grown ups generally are afforded the right to do what they want in private – except, in this country, somehow when it comes to drug use. Huh.
    My point is, what exactly makes Ron Washington’s cocaine use an issue? He manages a baseball team, which is almost identical in terms of responsibilities and impact to steering a train: yeah, you need to be at the helm, but the thing pretty much drives itself. Craig, you’re telling us that a grown man, who wears spandex pants to work 162 days a year (at least!) and supervises a bunch of other grown men as they run, jump, hit, throw, and otherwise have recess, is an important news story because he sniffed some coke?! Hogwash!
    This ain’t the 1970s or 1980s and this ain’t a story. It would have made a nice retrospective piece, but to try to tie it together in this way is more than a stretch.

  17. Craig Calcaterra - Mar 17, 2010 at 5:24 PM

    My personal view: cocaine is more serious than steroids, both for the user and for the game. At the same time, I still think that the Rangers were right to assess their manager’s situation individually and, based on that assessment, give him a second chance as opposed to simply firing him.

  18. Bob Tufts - Mar 17, 2010 at 5:48 PM

    When I was interviewing for jobs after business school, every employer asked me about baseball and cocaine. According to a federal judge, my name came up during the investigation (never used by the way). The mere fact that I played with the Giants and Royals cost me several job opportunities.
    Guilt by association is a bitch.
    Bob Tufts
    SF Giants – 1981, KC Royals, 1982-83

  19. Spice - Mar 17, 2010 at 5:50 PM

    Cocaine: Hurt players performance, hurt the team, unlawful in all circumstances, A player under the influence was a danger to himself and others both on the field and off.
    Steroids: Improved player performance (some will argue otherwise), helped the team, some are lawful with a prescription, a player taking steroids is not necessarily a danger to himself or other on the field or off.
    But people want to ban steroid users from the Hall.
    just thoughts

  20. Bear - Mar 17, 2010 at 6:44 PM

    ‘What about the children?’
    Seriously get a new schtick.

  21. The Rabbit - Mar 17, 2010 at 7:04 PM

    I’m really amused by some of the reactions but I suspect it may be because I’m considerably older than many of the readers and remember the cocaine culture of the 80′s.
    At the time, I was working primarily in NYC with a number of high-flying (no pun intended) entertainers, musicians, Fortune 500 corp execs, money managers, etc. The cliche at the time was: Cocaine is God’s way of telling you that you make too much money.
    As Ken Burns’ series aptly illustrated, what occurs in baseball is merely a reflection of other segments of American culture.

  22. Phil - Mar 17, 2010 at 7:15 PM

    Charles,
    I was 32 in 1980. I honestly don’t remember the degree of hand wringing over cocaine use that we’ve seen in “The Steroid Era”. Sure, Bill Collins was the south end of a north-bound horse, but that’s been his shtick from time immemorial. Most of this occurred in a political climate that, although it was the nascent Reagan Era, was less strident than it became by the end of the decade when the Republicans decided they should be the moral gatekeepers of the entire population.
    I don’t think anyone dismissed it, but they were young ballplayers with a lot of money and they weren’t doing anything much different (only more of it) from a lot of people their age in the general population. I do remember that it came up more often in retrospect. It was one of the favorite places Pete Rose apologists went in their efforts to whitewash Rose’s transgressions.

  23. Kevin - Mar 17, 2010 at 7:27 PM

    Just a sidenote: Tim Raines played 15 games in 1980. He was inconsequential at that point, and probably couldn’t afford a coke habit. His career didn’t really get started until 1981, his rookie year. Helping Raines get his life back on track was probably Andre Dawson’s most impressive accomplishment, even more so than his Hall of Fame-worthy stats (had to make sure it’s clear I think the Hawk deserves his spot).

  24. Paul - Mar 17, 2010 at 8:30 PM

    You know, if “about 40 percent” of players were using coke, that means that the majority of players weren’t. So why is everyone so quick to convict just because he played in the 80s?

  25. Phil - Mar 17, 2010 at 8:44 PM

    Bill Conlin … sigh

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