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.

Jose Fernandez was in the middle of baseball’s culture war

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 11:  Jose Fernandez #16 of the Miami Marlins and Brian McCann #16 of the Atlanta Braves have words after a solo home run by Fernandez in the sixth inning during a game  at Marlins Park on September 11, 2013 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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A lot has been written since news of Jose Fernandez’s death broke early Sunday morning. Fernandez will be remembered fondly for the way he seemed to never stop smiling and for the way he competed on the field. Having already won the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year, it seemed inevitable that Fernandez would one day win a Cy Young Award. We were truly watching one of the best arms of this era and that was paired with a terrific personality. The combination is quite rare and the sport was made so much better in the four years during which Fernandez pitched.

Fernandez attempted to defect to the United States four times and was sent to prison after each of the first three unsuccessful attempts. On the fourth attempt, his mother was thrown overboard in choppy waters and Fernandez dove in to rescue her. Fernandez risked everything to come to the United States to play baseball and seek a better life for himself and his family. If anyone had a right to tell other players to “play the game the right way” or to “respect the game,” it would have been Fernandez. But he never did. He played every game like it was his first. He savored his time out on the baseball field.

When Fernandez somehow snagged a Troy Tulowitzki line drive, Tulo stopped in his tracks to ask him, “Did you catch that?” Fernandez, flashing his trademark smile, replied, “Yeah, I did.”

When Giancarlo Stanton hit a monster home run to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, Fernandez cheered like he had just won the lottery.

Most memorably, Fernandez took a moment to take in his first career home run, hit on September 12, 2013 against the Braves. He lifted a 1-0 Mike Minor change-up for a no-doubt home run just in front of the Clevelander sign beyond the left field fence at Marlins Mark. Fernandez took his time circling the bases and, as he passed third base, Chris Johnson chirped at him. Catcher Brian McCann confronted him at home plate and shortly thereafter, both benches emptied. Even during this tense moment, Fernandez was seen smiling. In the dugout, he had an expression on his face that seemed to say, “Really?”

Fernandez was not the most central figure in baseball’s culture war, but as one of baseball’s best and most well-known players, he was certainly in the middle with the likes of Yasiel Puig, Jose Bautista, and Carlos Gomez. The war was about baseball’s “unwritten rules” which were devised by a homogeneous group of players decades ago and still followed today, still a rather homogeneous group. Newer players, an increasingly diverse group, were expected to adhere to these rules despite the fact that many of them played the game in a culture where emotion and exuberance were a normal part of the game.

Fernandez’s death should be a reminder that, when all is said and done, baseball is just a game and we’re meant to have fun with it. He was the embodiment of fun on the baseball field. In his memory, players should admire their handiwork on the field. Flip a bat after hitting a foul ball, like Odubel Herrera. Bat flip a fly out, like Puig. Players should laugh and pump their fists and cheer as if they might never have a chance to do it again. Because they might not.

Jose Fernandez was remarkable on and off the field

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Pitcher Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins poses for photos on media day at Roger Dean Stadium on February 24, 2016 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
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Jose Fernandez’s love for baseball was born in Santa Clara, Cuba. It was there, alongside childhood friend and St. Louis Cardinal Aledmys Diaz, that he devoted hours to makeshift games of baseball. Often alone, often without a teammate, a playing field, or even a baseball, Fernandez would spend hours lobbing baseball-sized rocks in the air, hitting them with sticks, and circling imaginary bases.

The dream was to play in the Cuban National Series, a 16-team league that formed when the original Cuban League disbanded in 1961. When Fernandez became a teenager, however, his stepfather, Ramon Jimenez, defected to the United States. It took Jimenez 13 attempts before he made a successful escape, and soon he sent for his wife and children. Whatever baseball aspirations Fernandez had took a backseat to his own treacherous journey from Cuba to Florida.

After two unsuccessful attempts and two months in a Cuban prison, 15-year-old Fernandez, his mother, and his stepsister tried again. The voyage was tumultuous; at one point, Fernandez’s mother fell overboard. Fernandez dove in after her and helped her swim 30 yards back to the boat. It took another month and change before Fernandez was settled in Florida with his family, and from there, his baseball career appeared to flourish overnight. He enrolled in Braulio Alonso High School and pitched during two championship runs with the Florida Class 6A state champions, working a 13-1 record and 2.85 ERA in his senior year with two no-hitters.

By 2011, several weeks before his 19th birthday, Fernandez was selected by the Miami Marlins in the first round of the MLB draft. His ascension through the minor leagues was even more remarkable. In his first season with Single-A Greensboro, Fernandez contributed six innings of a combined no-hitter, pitched to a combined 1.75 ERA and 158 strikeouts between Greensboro and Advanced-A Jupiter, and was distinguished as the preeminent Marlins minor league pitcher of the year.

If the transition from Miami’s minor league circuit to the big league stage was a rocky one, Fernandez hid it well. He debuted with the Marlins on April 17, 2013, holding the Mets to five innings of one-run ball and striking out eight of 19 batters. Only six major league pitchers under 21 years old had struck out at least eight batters during their major league debut; at 20 years old, Fernandez was the seventh.

The rest of his rookie season was no less groundbreaking. Fernandez worked a 2.19 ERA, second only to Clayton Kershaw’s 1.83 mark among qualified starting pitchers, appeared in his first All-Star Game, was named Rookie of the Month in two consecutive months, and capped his year with a staggering 4.1 fWAR. The Marlins didn’t just find their next ace in Fernandez; they found one of the best starting pitchers of the decade.

This isn’t to say that Fernandez was perfect — no player is. Reports surfaced in November 2015 that the 23-year-old hurler was working under a strained relationship with the Marlins’ brass, refusing to adhere to dugout protocol and asking president of baseball operations Michael Hill when he would be traded. Per Andy Slater of slaterscoops.com, the higher-ups in the Marlins’ organization weren’t the only ones frustrated with their star pitcher. Casey McGehee reprimanded Fernandez for showing up late to the clubhouse, and unnamed players also expressed their hope that Fernandez would struggle on the mound in future starts as a consequence for his arrogant behavior.

Following the report, several players stepped forward in Fernandez’s defense. According to a report by FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, the worst criticism levied at Fernandez was that he occasionally acted his age. (Brian McCann, who confronted Fernandez in a benches-clearing brawl after the rookie’s first career home run, might have agreed.) Others, like right-handers Dan Haren and Tom Koehler, vocalized their support for the pitcher despite any underlying tension surrounding his potential departure.

Whether or not the rumors had merit, Fernandez was spared the chopping block during his lengthy recovery process in 2014 and 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. In 2016, he again proved his dominance on the mound. Through 186 ⅔ innings, the 24-year-old posted 16 wins, a staggering 12.49 K/9 rate, a 2.86 ERA and career-high 6.2 fWAR. It should have been just the second outstanding season of a lengthy career; instead, it was his last.

In the wake of today’s tragedy, it is difficult to dwell on Fernandez’s professional accomplishments. We know that he was more than the sum of his innings pitched in Miami, more than a feel-good story or a testament to the resilience of other players who defected from their home countries in pursuit of a better life. By all reports, he was a man of incredible courage, a cherished son and grandson, and a remarkable talent on the field. His life, as with any other, should be valued not for what he did or did not do, but simply because he existed.