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Major League Baseball has an opioid problem. Now what?


Earlier today it was reported that Eric Kay, the Los Angeles Angels’ Director of Communications, knew that Tyler Skaggs was an Oxycontin addict and, in fact, purchased opioids for Skaggs and used them with him on multiple occasions. He further alleges — though the Angels dispute it — that he told other high-ranking Angels employees about Skaggs’ opioid abuse. He also claims that at least five other Angels players currently abuse opioids. All of these allegations were made in questioning of Kay by Drug Enforcement Administration agents investigating Skaggs’ death.

The immediate consequences of this, after the shock subsides, will no doubt be legal and financial ones.

Kay says he did not supply the drugs that killed Skaggs. If he did, he could be in major legal trouble. Even if he did not, there could be any number of miscellaneous criminal charges lodged against him depending what he has admitted to. Other figures in Skaggs’ life and final hours will also, in all likelihood, be identified soon and they may face legal jeopardy as well. A man died. A famous one, and nothing gets law enforcement to move more quickly and decisively than a famous person dying.

The Skaggs family has claimed from the start that an Angels employee supplied their son with drugs — that much now seems to be confirmed — and believes that the Angels did not do what they could to help him combat his addiction. To that end they have hired high-powered attorney Rusty Hardin who will either file a lawsuit against the Angels or get them to agree to a very large settlement to avoid one. That’s what he does.

And, at least from what can be seen at this early stage, I’d say he has a fairly decent leg to stand on.

Per baseball’s Joint Drug Agreement, opioids are classified as a “Drug of Abuse.” Baseball doesn’t test major leaguers for them, but there is an affirmative reporting requirement on the part of clubs if they become aware of that a player is using a the substances listed as drugs of abuse. The point of that is not to discipline addicts. It’s about getting a player who is abusing these drugs treatment. There is actually something called the “Treatment Board” under the JDA which helps the player get into a program to deal with abuse and addiction. There are medical professionals involved to help tailor programs for addicted players. If they fail in their program they re-jigger the program and try again. Only if the player becomes unwilling or, at long last, unable to help himself will baseball look to suspend a guy. The whole point is to help.

If what Kay is saying it true, however, he — and, allegedly at least, others with the Angels — practically foreclosed that option for Skaggs. They failed an addicted employee when there was a road map for how to specifically avoid that. You can bet everything you have that, if it comes to a lawsuit, Rusty Hardin will be banging his fist on a table and loudly and forcefully telling a jury that if high-ranking Angels employees had fulfilled their responsibilities, Tyler Skaggs would be alive today (quick prediction: it doesn’t get that far because Arte Moreno will write a very large check to the Skaggs family to keep that from happening).

I’m less interested in all of that, however, than I am in what Major League Baseball will do in the face of what appears at the moment to have been a catastrophic and deadly failure of the very system set up to protect and help players in Skaggs’ shoes.

There’s a basic problem in the first instance: what happens to anyone with the Angels who, when this is all said and done, is found to have known about Skaggs’ drug abuse but did not come forward? Will executives be penalized? Suspended? Fired? How about teammates? Will the Angels as an organization be subject to sanction of some kind? I have no idea and cannot immediately see from where in the Joint Drug Agreement such discipline would flow, but Rob Manfred has enormous power, particularly over club officials and employees, so it’s a question worth asking.

But there’s a broader problem here: is it not starting to look like Major League Baseball has a major, major problem with opioid addiction?

One player is dead. A team employee — also an addict — was involved in the player’s drug acquisition and use. And not just some rogue outside trainer or a guy who wears a mascot costume. It was a long-standing and high-ranking front office employee. And that’s before you get to the part where, if he is to be believed, a full 20% of the Angels’ big league roster abuses opioids as well.

Which is to say that Major League Baseball, in all likelihood, does have a major, major problem with opioid addiction. It seems logical that it would extend beyond the Angels, at least. From gambling and throwing games in the early days of the game to alcohol addiction during its alleged “Golden Age” to cocaine in the 1970s and 80s and on to PEDs in the 90s and early 2000s, vice and/or addiction in Major League Baseball always — always — extends to more than one club. Players on other teams are rivals but they’re also friends, interact and socialize both during and after the season. They all face the same pressures and temptations and are thus all subject to the same addictions. And that’s before you acknowledge — which we must — that the opioid epidemic our nation has seen over the past decade respects few if any social, cultural, or economic boundaries. If five guys on a team are using, you can bet there are many more on other teams as well.

So what does Major League Baseball do about it?

On one level that’s an impossible and even unfair question to ask. What does anyone do to keep people from falling prey to opioid addiction? Governments and courts and families and schools and workplaces have struggled with that question for years and, short of finally starting to at least consider holding those who have filled out society up with these monstrous drugs legally and morally responsible, no one has come up with great answers. If, as I suspect, Major League Baseball does have a big opioid problem, I don’t envy anyone there who is tasked with trying to address it. It’s the greatest public health monster our nation has faced in at least a generation.

But I do know what it should not do. It should not dust off the playbook it used in the 1980s with cocaine and in the 2000s with PEDs. It should not make identifying and singling out the players who are using for shame and scrutiny the alpha and omega of its response.

In Pittsburgh, in the 80s, a number of players were paraded through courtrooms and on the evening news and were made the faces of baseball’s cocaine problem. Two years later, the Commissioner of Baseball laughably and cynically declared that “drugs are over in baseball.” The league got its perp walks and public shamings, the public was convinced that it was all a matter of arrogant, overpaid ballplayers simply looking for a greater high, and then everyone washed their hands of the matter.

As I’ve written in this space on a number of occasions, baseball’s response to the PED epidemic was similar. Rather than examine the problem, seek out its root causes — including how clubs encouraged and accepted it — and try to figure out the most effective way to stop it, they simply named a couple hundred names, let the players wear the shame, and declared victory. Bud Selig was not as foolish about declaring victory over PED use the way Peter Ueberroth did with coke, but everything he’s said and done on the matter since the day after the Mitchell Report came out has been accompanied by an implicit claim that he solved the PED scourge by punishing those evil players.

Which brings us back the Angels and opioids.

If what I suspect to be true is, in fact, true, Major League Baseball has an extraordinarily difficult problem on its hands. I have no idea how one goes about solving  that problem, but I do know that if the league’s stab at it involves making a point to name those other five Angels players Kay mentioned to the DEA or if it involves casting them or other addicted players around the league as villains or poster children, it’ll be the wrong move. Wrong in an absolute sense in that it would work to blame addicts in ways that, I would hope, we’re all smarter about now than the way we used to be. But it would also be wrong because, in the end, it will do nothing to combat a problem that is not only serious, but deadly.

It’s your move, Major League Baseball. Think carefully before you make it.

Rob Manfred explains reasoning behind proposal to cut 42 minor league teams

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As we learned earlier this week, Major League Baseball wants to contract 42 minor league teams, mostly in short-season and rookie ball. The proposal earned a lot of backlash, including from some of the teams on the chopping block and from Congress. MLB responded with its own letter to Congress, written by deputy commissioner Dan Halem, explaining the league’s reasoning.

In the letter, Halem complains about the lack of competition between minor league teams and independent teams. Halem wrote, “The lack of competition among operators of teams for an affiliation with a Major League Club has reduced the incentive for some affiliated Minor League teams to improve their facilities and player amenities.” It is an interesting thing to write as someone representing a $10 billion business that has benefited for a century from an antitrust exemption.

Halem also noted that MLB has several goals that are supposedly attained by cutting 26 percent of the minors: ensuring the quality of the facilities for the players, reducing the travel burden, improving the “compensation, accommodations, and amenities” for players, improving the affiliation process between minor league and major league teams.

Commissioner Rob Manfred essentially echoed that sentiment on Thursday, per Newsday’s Laura Albanese. He gave four reasons behind the proposal: inadequate facilities, travel, poor pay, drafting and signing players who don’t have a realistic shot to make it to the majors. The last reason is a new one, but let’s go over those four reasons in context.

It is true that some, perhaps even most, of the facilities of the 42 named teams are inadequate. It’s not all of them. As NECN’s Jack Thurston reports, the owner of the short-season Lowell Spinners, Dave Heller, said that his team’s stadium is “arguably the best facility in the New York-Penn League,” speaking highly of its lighting and field conditions. The Quad Cities River Bandits, the Astros’ Single-A affiliate and also on the chopping block, renovated their stadium a handful of times over the last 12 years. In fact, it earned an award from for “Best Ballpark Improvement” in both 2008 and ’09, and finished third in the 2018 running for “Best View in the Minors.” At any rate, if facility quality is such a big issue, why did the Athletics continue to play in a stadium that repeatedly had its sewage system overflow in 2013?

Travel is certainly a big issue for minor leaguers because they mostly travel by bus, not plane. Having teams located closer to each other would be more beneficial in this regard. Or — and hear me out, here — major league teams could take on the extra expenditure of paying for their minor leaguers’ airfare. Several years ago, the Phillies took on the extra expenditure of making sure their minor leaguers ate healthy food and that has worked out well. The Blue Jays took on the extra expenditure of giving their minor leaguers a pay raise and that has worked out well. The Red Sox took on the extra expenditure of installing a sleep room at Fenway Park to ensure their players were well-rested and that has worked out well. No one is suggesting that Single-A players have to fly first class on every flight, but the travel issue is an easy fix that doesn’t require contracting 42 teams. Teams have individually chosen to improve their players’ quality of life and it has yielded positive results. Imagine it on a league-wide scale for thousands of players in their formative years.

Manfred citing minor league pay as a basis for the proposal is laughable. His own league successfully lobbied Congress to amend language in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, classifying minor league players as seasonal workers. That means they are not entitled to a minimum wage or overtime pay, among other worker protections. If the pay of minor league players was so important to Major League Baseball, it wouldn’t have pressured the government to legally ensure they didn’t have to pay them a living wage. Every baseball team is worth at least a billion dollars. The league has set year-over-year revenue records for 16 consecutive years, crossing $10 billion in 2018. Minor leaguers could be compensated well without robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Lastly, it is true that a majority of minor league players will never reach the major leagues. That doesn’t mean that their presence in the minor leagues or their effort to realize their dreams have zero value. Lopping off the bottom 26 percent of minor leaguers might nominally increase the level of skill on each roster, but it eliminates so many jobs — well over 1,000. Furthermore, there are few incentives for athletes to want to slog through several years of the minors as it is, as Kyler Murray recently showed, but there would be even fewer incentives by shrinking the minors (and, consequently, the draft). Shrinking the minors and the draft could lead to more minor league free agents, but if baseball is actually interested in a free market (it’s not) then it should abolish the draft entirely as well as the arbitration system.

These reasons, each uniquely fallacious, hide the real reason behind the proposal: shifting money around so Major League Baseball can say it will award pay raises to minor leaguers, ending a years-long stretch of bad P.R., without actually cutting into profits. MLB could have afforded to pay minor leaguers a living wage years ago and it chose not to. MLB could have chosen not to lobby Congress for the ability to continue underpaying minor leaguers years ago, but it chose to do so. Everything since has been the league trying to avoid lying in the bed it made for itself.