A few words on cocaine in baseball

33 Comments

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.

Mariners sign reliever Joel Peralta

Joel Peralta
Leave a comment

Right-hander Joel Peralta has agreed to a minor-league contract with the Mariners that includes an invitation to spring training.

Peralta spent last season with the Dodgers and was limited to 29 innings by neck and back problems, posting a 4.34 ERA and 24/8 K/BB ratio. Los Angeles declined his $2.5 million option, making him a free agent.

He was one of the most underrated relievers in baseball from 2010-2014, logging a total of 318 innings with a 3.34 ERA and 342 strikeouts, but at age 40 he’s shown signs of decline. Still, for a minor-league deal and no real commitment Peralta has a chance to be a nice pickup for Seattle’s bullpen.

White Sox sign Mat Latos

Mat Latos
5 Comments

Jerry Crasnick reports that the Chicago White Sox have signed Mat Latos.

Latos was pretty spiffy between 2010-2014, posting sub-3.50 ERAs each year.  Then the injuries came and he fell apart. He pitched for three teams in 2015 — the Dodgers, Angels, and Marlins — with a combined 4.95 ERA in 113 innings. And he didn’t make friends on those clubs either, with reports of clubhouse strife left in his wake.

In Chicago he gets a fresh start. It doesn’t come in a park that will do him any favors — Latos and U.S. Cellular Field don’t seem like a great match — but at this point beggars can’t be choosers.

 

Jason Castro loses arbitration hearing against Astros

Jason Castro
1 Comment

Veteran catcher Jason Castro and the Astros went through with an arbitration hearing over a difference of $250,000 and the three-person panel ruled in favor of the team.

That means Castro will make $5 million this season rather than his requested amount of $5.25 million. This is his final year of arbitration eligibility, so the 29-year-old catcher will be a free agent after the season.

Castro showed a lot of promise early on, including making the All-Star team at age 26 in 2013, but since then he’s hit just .217 with a .650 OPS in 230 games. His power and pitch-framing skills are a valuable combination even within sub par overall production, so 2016 will be a key year for the former first-round draft pick.

Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Eminent Domain and the history of the Rangers Ballpark

Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump addresses supporters at a campaign rally, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, in Grand Rapids, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
6 Comments

Eminent Domain — the right of a government to take/buy private property for public use — and its implications has always been a controversial topic. It became far more controversial in the 1990s and early 2000s, however,  as the practice, which is intended for public projects like roads and stuff, was increasingly used in ways to help developers and businesses.

The controversy came to a head in the 2005 case Kelo v. City of New London in which the Supreme Court held that general benefits a community enjoyed from economic growth — not just direct public works — qualified as a “public use” under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The upshot: if someone had a good argument that a shopping mall would benefit the community, Mr. Developer and the government can force you to sell them their house.

This led to a HUGE backlash, with property rights people freaking out about what seemed like a pretty clear abuse of governmental power serving the interests of developers. Some 44 states have since passed laws outlawing the use of Eminent Domain for purely economic development. Some of that backlash has gone too far in the other direction, with some laws getting passed which not only required compensation to landowners if land was taken, but merely if land was diminished in value.  Like, if the government passes an environmental regulation which makes your private, for-profit toxic waste dump less lucrative than it was, the government has to pay you. It’s crazy stuff, really. And all of those laws notwithstanding, the topic continues to be a controversial one, with battles over what, exactly, is “public” what is a “public good” and all of that raging on. It’s rather fascinating. At least for boring nerfherders like me.

In the recent GOP presidential debate Donald Trump and Jeb Bush got into it on the topic, with Trump — a real estate developer, or course — defending the use of Eminent Domain to take land for economic development and Bush — a really desperate dude who at this point will take ANY position he can if it’ll give him traction — opposing it. In the days since they’ve continued to fight about it, with Trump charging Bush with hypocrisy since his brother, George W., was an owner of the Texas Rangers when they built their new ballpark with the help of Eminent Domain.

Ahh, yes. We finally get to baseball.

Today Nathaniel Rakich of Baseballot digs into that project and looks at how it all played out against the Eminent Domain debate. It touches on stuff we talk about a lot around here: are ballparks engines of economic development or merely for the enrichment of ballclubs? If they are built by a municipality, are they public goods? Wait, how can they be public goods if you can’t just walk into them for free? And the arguments go on.

It’s fascinating stuff showing, once again, that the real world and baseball intersect all the dang time and it’s handy to have a handle on just how, exactly, it does so.