A few words on cocaine in baseball


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.

Report: Ben Zobrist’s price tag is currently four years, $60 million

Ben Zobrist
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
Leave a comment

Ben Zobrist will turn 35 years old early next summer, but that doesn’t seem to be putting too much of a dent in his free agent value.

According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, the “sense among interested teams” is that Zobrist’s price is currently hovering around four years, $60 million and it “may go higher.”

There was a report from FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal on Sunday stating that the Mets have made Zobrist their “No. 1” offseason target, and over a dozen other clubs have linked to him since the World Series ended. That’s the kind of attention you command when you can both hit — Zobrist posted an .809 OPS (120 OPS+) in 2015 — and also cover a range of positions defensively.

He makes sense for just about any club looking to contend in the coming seasons.

Wilin Rosario elects to become free agent

Wilin Rosario
AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi
Leave a comment

Wilin Rosario was designated for assignment by the Rockies late last month. Now, according to Thomas Harding of MLB.com, the 26-year-old former National League Rookie of the Year vote-getter has elected to become a free agent.

Rosario is a bad defensive catcher and wasn’t much better when the Rockies tried him at first base, but he should draw some interest from American League teams looking for a bench bat and part-time DH.

Rosario slugged 28 home runs for the Rockies in 2012 and he’s averaged 26 home runs for every 162 games over the course of his five-year major league career.

He boasts a .319/.356/.604 career batting line against left-handed pitching.

Orioles acquire Mark Trumbo from Mariners for Steve Clevenger

Mark Trumbo
AP Photo/Joe Nicholson

As first reported by Bob Dutton of the Tacoma Tribune and now confirmed by CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, the Mariners have traded first baseman and corner outfielder Mark Trumbo to the Orioles in exchange for catcher and first baseman Steve Clevenger. There is also a second player headed to Baltimore in the deal.

This feels like an admission from the O’s that they’re not going to be able to re-sign Chris Davis, who is said to be looking for more than $150 million in free agency.

Clevenger was out of options and the Orioles have both Matt Wieters and Caleb Joseph coming back at the catcher position. Wieters was due to become a free agent but accepted a one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from Baltimore last month.

Trumbo has always been a low-OBP guy and he rates as a poor defender everywhere he has played, but the 29-year-old has averaged 31 homers and 96 RBI for every 162 games in his six-year major league career. Camden Yards is a much better place than Safeco Field for him to show that power.

Cardinals finished runner-up to Red Sox in David Price sweepstakes

David Price
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner

These kind of after-the-ink-has-dried reports have to be taken with a grain of salt for a variety of reasons, but they’re fantastic conversation-starters …

Bob Nightengale of USA Today says the Cardinals “finished runner-up” to the Red Sox in the bidding for free agent left-hander David Price, who signed with Boston on Monday for a record seven years and $217 million.

There were reports early on that the Red Sox were going to have to overpay on Price because he wanted to either stay in Toronto or make the move to the more pitcher-friendly National League. And maybe they did go significantly above and beyond the next-best offer to land him.

But the report from Nightengale serves as an indication that the Cardinals are ready and willing to spend big money ahead of next week’s Winter Meetings in Nashville. Does that chunk of change now get directed toward Jason Heyward? Or might the Cardinals pounce one of the falling dominos in this still-loaded starting pitching market? What about both?

St. Louis lost Lance Lynn to Tommy John surgery last month and both Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha carry some injury concerns into 2016. There’s money to spend there with a new billion-dollar local television deal about ready to kick in.