A few words on cocaine in baseball

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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.

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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I’m taking the day off to go down to Kentucky to watch horses do horsey things (watch for me photobombing equestrian types on NBC Sports Network). Bill will be along later today and Ashley will be here this evening, but I can’t leave you without the recaps because that’s what I do.

Don’t do anything dumb while your mother and I are out. We’ve marked all the bottles. We’ll know if you’re lying to us.

Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Dodgers 5, Giants 1: It was 1-1 until the 11th inning thanks to Julio Urias, making his 2017 big league debut, and the Dodgers’ bullpen and Matt Moore and the Giants’ bullpen takin’ care of business. The Dodgers got tired of it being close in the top of the 11th, however, beating up on Corey Gearrin, Steven Okert and Hunter Strickland for four runs. Andrew Toles knocked in the go-ahead run with a single. A sac fly, single and a bases-loaded walk finished the scoring. The Giants wouldn’t have even scored the one run if it wasn’t for the Dodgers throwing the ball around.

Nationals 16, Rockies 5: The Nats came into Colorado and scored 46 runs in four games. Which, damn. They put up 11 runs in the seventh inning here, with Bryce Harper hitting a three-run shot. Trea Turner hit for the cycle on Tuesday, finished a triple shy of another cycle Wednesday and hit a double and two singles and driving in two here. Harper is hitting .418/.535/.823 with eight homers and 25 RBI. That’s a 59 homer, 184 RBI pace. I know Harper has a habit of putting up big Aprils and that injuries have derailed him in the past, but this is shaping up to be a really special year for this guy.

Cardinals 8, Blue Jays 4; Cardinals 6, Blue Jays 4: The first game of the twin-bill ended in spectacular fashion with Matt Carpenter hitting a walkoff grand slam in the 11th inning. They wouldn’t have even gotten to extras, however, if it wasn’t for Randal Grichuk‘s two-run homer with two outs in the ninth which tied it up. So much drama in game 1 it’s a shame they had to suit up for fame 2 rather than just go out for drinks. But they did play game 2 and it went swell for St. Louis. Dexter Fowler, Greg Garcia and Matt Adams each had three hits. Fowler hit a dinger. The Blue Jays are a total mess. But they’re not the only mess in the bigs right now because . . .

Braves 7, Mets 5: M-E-S-S Mess! Mess! Mess! Six losses in a row and 10 of 11. They’re not scoring. Everyone is getting hurt. Just a disaster. The last time the Mets were this screwed up was just after the All-Star break in 2015 and you know what happened then. Oh, wait, they won the pennant. Eh, let’s let the New York press and Mets fans freak out. Maybe it’s actually warranted this time. Who knows. All I know is that Kurt Suzuki hit a big three-run homer here and when the Braves make you look bad, you’re not living your best life.

Mariners 2, Tigers 1: Justin Verlander and Hisashi Iwakuma battled. Verlander battled a tad better — allowing only an unearned run in seven innings while striking out eight while Iwakuma allowed only one unearned run in five and two-thirds — but the Mariners got the win anyway. The go-ahead run came thanks to a Ben Gamel RBI single off of Francisco Rodriguez in the ninth. Can’t trust the Tigers bullpen in a close game. Ever.

Phillies 3, Marlins 2Jeremy Hellickson allowed one run over six innings as the Phillies win their sixth straight. Hellickson is 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA on the year. Philly is doing OK right now, but if they aren’t in contention come July, he’s going to be a pretty attractive trade target.

Indians 4, Astros 3: Down 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh, Francisco Lindor hit a two-run bomb. And I mean bomb. The thing was estimated to be over 450 feet. Corey Kluber struck out ten over seven innings. In addition to being one of the best shortstops around, Lindor is hitting .301/.368/.614 on the year and he’s on a 40-homer pace. That $100 million deal he reportedly turned down is gonna look positively quaint.

Yankees 3, Red Sox 0: Masahiro Tanaka tosses a Maddux. You do know what a Maddux is, right? In case you forgot, it’s a complete game shutout in which the starter throws fewer than 100 pitches. Here it was a three-hitter in which he only allowed one runner to reach second base. Chris Sale was no slouch himself, striking out ten in eight innings. He’s pitched great this year but he’s not getting any help. They’ve only scored four runs in his five starts. Boston has scored  only 13 runs in their last seven games. They’ve been shut out three times in the past seven.

Diamondbacks 6, Padres 2: Taijuan Walker struck out 11 and Chris Ownings hit a pair of solo homers. Yasmany Tomas had a two-run homer.

Angels 2, Athletics 1: I had a dream last night that I owed the Oakland A’s $30,000 in medical bills. Something in the dream made it make sense — baseball teams ran hospitals or something — and for whatever reason, my family had used theirs and I was responsible for the bills. My family, by the way, included Ronald Reagan, who was treated at A’s hospital. Insurance wouldn’t cover a lot of his bills because a man had come out of the woodwork claiming to have been his lover, and the insurance company had a right to discriminate based on sexual orientation. What I’m sayin’ is that a lot was going on in this dream and I’m a little upset with the A’s over it right now.

Oh, by the way, Ricky Nolasco allowed one runs in five and two-thirds and four relievers combined to shut the A’s out the rest of the way. The Angels scored both of their runs in the first.

I probably do need that day off, eh? See you Monday.

Masahiro Tanaka throws a Maddux

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You do know what a Maddux is, right? In case you forgot, it’s a complete game shutout in which the starter throws fewer than 100 pitches. Friend of HBT Jason Lukehart invented that little metric and, because Greg Maddux is my favorite player ever, it’s pretty much my favorite stat ever.

In the Yankees-Red Sox game tonight it was Masahiro Tanaka doing the honors, tossing 97-pitch three-hitter in which he only allowed one runner to reach second base to beat Boston 3-0. He only struck out three but he didn’t walk anyone. He retired the last 14 batters he faced.

Chris Sale was no slouch himself, striking out ten in eight innings. He’s pitched great this year but he’s not getting any help. The Sox have only scored four runs in his five starts. Boston has scored only 13 runs in their last seven games. They’ve been shut out three times in the past seven. They scored more runs than anyone last year, by the way.

The game only took two hours and twenty-one minutes. Or, like, half the time of a Yankees-Red Sox game in the early 2000s. Progress, people. We’re making progress.