Skip to main content
Original Issue

Taking Steps To Solve The Drug Dilemma

Cocaine offenders Willie Wilson (left), Willie Aikens and Jerry Martin are back in action, but baseball still struggles with its most serious problem

At 7:36 p.m. last Wednesday, Kansas City centerfielder Willie Wilson came to bat for the first time since serving 81 days at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Worth for attempting to possess cocaine. Leading off and playing centerfield—"first and central," as his teammates put it—Wilson stood in against White Sox lefthander Floyd Bannister and the infamously inhospitable fans at Chicago's Comiskey Park. During batting practice some of them had unfurled a banner reading WILLIE, COKE IS IT. Wilson laughed and they put it away.

Sid Salzberg, the Royals' team psychologist, had steeled Wilson for the evening by telling him to repeat to himself, "I'm all right, I'm O.K." Now, Wilson heard only a smattering of boos. "How you doin'?" catcher Carlton Fisk said pleasantly. "Fine," Wilson said, and he proved it by drawing a walk. Then, attempting to steal second base, Wilson got such a good jump that he didn't even draw a throw. Moments later Bannister attempted to pick Wilson off second, but his throw tipped the glove of second baseman Julio Cruz and rolled into short left-center. As Wilson bolted for third base and raced all the way home, the cares of the winter flew off him with every long stride. He smiled broadly as he ran toward the dugout, and his teammates clapped him on the shoulders and told their sorely missed leadoff man, "You're back!"

"It was just like old times," said Royals second baseman Frank White, "scoring a run in the first without even getting a hit." And it was the Royals of old who rallied from a 5-1 deficit to win 7-6, with Wilson contributing another walk and a single.

Wilson isn't the only drug offender who had a belated Opening Day this year. Atlanta pitcher Pascual Perez spent three months in a Dominican Republic prison for cocaine possession before making his first start on May 2. Two of Wilson's former Kansas City teammates, Toronto DH-first baseman Willie Aikens and Mets outfielder Jerry Martin, served time in the same prison as Wilson and were also reinstated by commissioner Bowie Kuhn last Wednesday. In Minneapolis, Aikens came to bat as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning and grounded out. In Toronto the following evening, Aikens received a hero's welcome and went 2 for 3 off Cy Young Award winner LaMarr Hoyt as the Blue Jays defeated the White Sox 3-2.

Martin joined the Mets in San Francisco but didn't play until Friday, when he entered the game as a pinch hitter and flied out on the first pitch. But Martin was happy just to be back. "I'll tell you what I thought about most in prison," he said. "I thought about facing the opposing pitchers—every one of them." And he didn't mind at all when a teammate kidded him, "Hey, Jerry, you're famous—you met Bowie Kuhn himself." (Martin, Wilson and Aikens had been obliged to meet with the commissioner the day before.) Said Martin, "After being away so long, I was happy to hear them laugh at me."

There's nothing funny about baseball's continuing drug problem. In the past five years 16 players have either admitted to having drug problems or have been convicted of drug-related charges (see box, page 45). Kuhn has suspended five offenders in the last year alone. These don't include some 11 present and former players whose names have been mentioned in drug investigations. Unknown are the number of players who've received confidential counseling and, the largest number of all, active players who are currently using illegal drugs. "The problem," says Kuhn, "is serious."

So serious, in fact, that a joint player-owner committee has proposed a comprehensive drug program to deal with the problem. The players have been voting on the proposal in recent weeks, and the owners are expected to take it up at a meeting in Chicago on Thursday.

Why is baseball discussing drugs more publicly than other businesses are? One reason: Baseball, unlike, say, an automobile manufacturer, does its business under the public's eye. The names of all arrested and most recovering players are discussed in print and on TV, the result being that drugs have become a public-relations stigma. Baseball officials and fans can't help but wonder who's playing under the influence and who isn't. (Retired pitcher Dock Ellis, now a drug counselor in Los Angeles, said recently that as a Pirate he pitched his 1970 no-hitter against San Diego while under the influence of LSD.) And there's the threat that a player in hock to his dealer could shave runs or throw games. Not since the 1919 Black Sox scandal have club owners and law enforcement officials worried so much about the integrity of the game.

Drugs loom over baseball's everyday doings. An established player goes into a slump, and critics whisper: "It must be drugs." The 18-times-a-year publication Baseball America no longer calls itself "The Baseball Junkies' Newspaper." California pitcher Bruce Kison moans, "I'm so sick of having team meetings to discuss drug problems instead of how to pitch a club."

General managers can consult a "drug list" of suspected players before making trades. "If you're thinking of acquiring a player, you can find out from the commissioner's office if he has had a known problem," says Montreal president John McHale. "Anytime you have a problem with a player or suspect a problem you can get investigative help from the commissioner's office."

Like pro football's, baseball's drug problem mainly involves cocaine, society's "recreational" drug of the moment. "I'm no moralist," says Alan Hendricks, the agent of Pittsburgh reliever Rod Scurry, a recovering coke addict (see box, page 39), "but 'recreational'? What a comment on society!"

Today, most baseball people have come to realize that drug abuse is potentially a more serious concern in their sport than in society as a whole—and have finally sought professional advice.

"Many studies have been done on who the high-risk people are," Forest Tennant, an associate professor of public health at UCLA and a drug consultant to the Dodgers, told SI's Herm Weiskopf last week. "First, they're cigarette smokers. Second, they're from a poor family life and broken homes. Third, they were hyperactive children. Fourth, they smoked marijuana and cigarettes at an early age. And fifth, they come from a family with a history of drug or alcohol use."

In his newly released autobiography, Snap Me Perfect!, St. Louis catcher Darrell Porter, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, detailed his own considerable qualifications for plunging into drug and alcohol abuse. As a youngster he was neither encouraged to show his emotions nor praised for his accomplishments. His role model was a father who drank. Insecure and feeling unrelenting pressure to succeed, Porter escaped into alcohol, marijuana, Quaaludes, greenies and cocaine. After a decade of growing addiction, marked by increased paranoia and decreased self-esteem, Porter underwent rehabilitation in 1980.

But baseball's addicts don't conform to narrow stereotypes. Society's average cocaine user is said to be white and middle-class, but 11 of the 16 major-leaguers who've been convicted or treated are black or Hispanic. In baseball, cocaine is an equal-opportunity destroyer.

"We produce the blueprint of a user—young, wealthy, unaccountable for his behavior because of his athletic ability, unable to handle pressure," says McHale. "Stress management is at the heart of the problem," says K.C. general manager John Schuerholz. "There's stress at every level: making it to the majors, staying in the majors, making money, continuing to make money."

Baltimore physician Torrey Brown, a medical consultant for the NBA, believes that there's another factor working against baseball players and other athletes. "I think most athletes believe, 'I can beat anything,' which is a necessary attitude to become a winner in sports," he says. "They're always better than the next guy and the next team. And they extend that attitude to drugs."

The short-lived cocaine high does little to lessen that view. Until he comes down to depression and paranoia, a coke user feels stronger, smarter, livelier, lovelier, sexier. And more athletic. "He may not be hurt for the first 48 hours," says Braves consulting physician G. Douglas Talbott, director of the chemical dependency program at Atlanta's Ridgeview Institute. "Afterward he loses reflexes, muscle power and visual coordination. All the while he thinks he's doing better. That's the deadly trap of cocaine."

Baseball became aware of illegal drugs in the early '70s. Unfortunately, teams treated players with drug problems by trading them, ignoring them or coddling them. This unenlightened attitude persists in some quarters. "They say [drugs are] a disease," says Buzzie Bavasi, the California Angels' old-line executive vice-president. "Sure [they are]—a self-inflicted disease. Then the ball club feels sorry for [the players] and puts them in a $200-a-day hospital. When I was in the service in Italy a young man came off the front line, put his foot up and shot it. That's a self-inflicted disease. They didn't put him in a $200-a-day hospital. They put him in the brig, and a month later he was back on the front lines."

Kuhn's office started what it called a drug program in 1971, but it amounted to little more than public relations. Then in 1979, former Dodger pitcher Don Newcombe, a recovering alcoholic and professional drug-abuse counselor, says he convinced L.A. owner Peter O'Malley that pitcher Bob Welch was drinking himself to death. Welch was subsequently rehabilitated and O'Malley became the first owner to start an Employee Assistance Program. "We saved a life," says Newcombe, "and now we're trying to save the life of Steve Howe."

Many other clubs also have EAPs that allow their employees to get confidential counseling for anything from drugs to depression. (According to one source, some of the most frequent requests for EAP counseling come from players' wives, who drink excessively while their husbands are on the road.) During spring training, representatives of the FBI and the DEA lecture major-and minor-leaguers on the dangers of associating with drug dealers and gamblers; and former players like Ellis, Newcombe, Ryne Duren and Sam McDowell (all recovering drug or alcohol abusers) speak from experience about the perils of addiction.

"We must be doing something right," says Bob Wirz, a spokesman for Kuhn, "because so many players have come forward for assistance." If Newcombe hadn't been lecturing at the Royals' spring training camp in 1980, Porter wouldn't have sought help. Sometimes, though, clubs must force the players' hands. The Braves confronted outfielder Claudell Washington and reliever Steve Bedrosian last fall and suggested both should seek medical help, which they did.

As baseball players and officials have discovered, there are excellent treatment facilities available for drug and alcohol abusers. The most frequently used are The Meadows, a former dude ranch in Wickenberg, Ariz., with beds for 50, and CareUnit, a 94-patient hospital in Orange, Calif. Though The Meadows has a religious orientation and CareUnit an athletic bent, the programs are very similar. After a brief drying-out period, the treatment features exhaustive individual, group and family therapy in which patients are confronted with their failures and forced to rediscover feelings they hid while escaping into drugs. Outside the CareUnit cafeteria a patient has hung a poster with the words RECOVERY IS BEAUTIFUL—but it doesn't come easy.

"Basically, there are three forms of treatment," says Tennant. "First, the addict should talk to someone who cares about him. That person can often talk him out of drugs by pointing out how ridiculous they are. If that doesn't work, it's into a hospital for 28 days or attending self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or counseling with a minister or social worker. Finally, there's psychological and medical evaluation, long outpatient care and weekly urine tests."

In a series of meetings that began last August and concluded three weeks ago, the Players Association, a management committee and a retired drug therapist, Philadelphia physician Donald Ottenberg, devised the joint drug policy that could become part of the current Basic Agreement if the owners give their approval this week. A magnificent political document, the program steers a middle course between the hang-'em-high hardliners and the addiction-as-sickness softies. According to the plan, a player can approach a club for help or a club can confront a player. If the player and club disagree on a course of action, the problem goes to a permanent, three-member medical panel selected by the clubs and the Players Association. The player would continue to receive his full salary during off-season treatment or for the first 30 days of in-season care. Then, he would get half pay for the next 30 days' treatment and then be paid at a rate equal to the minimum $40,000 annual salary until he's able to perform again.

"The program is designed to give the player an incentive to ask for help," says Expo player rep Steve Rogers. "When your program involves nothing more than standardized punishments, the player won't ask for help until it's too late."

Under this proposed plan Kuhn—or Peter Ueberroth, who will replace him as commissioner on Oct. 1—retains the power to suspend players (and the Players Association retains its right to file grievances) for committing felonies and misdemeanors, for distributing drugs to other players and for using them at the ball park. "When a player won't cooperate or can't be cured, he's got to be eliminated from the game," says Lee MacPhail, president of the Player Relations Committee.

Cleveland first baseman Mike Hargrove concurs. "I have sympathy for people into drugs who turn themselves in and try to seek help," he says. "But not with those who simply are nailed [by the law]."

The players are believed to have overwhelmingly supported the program in secret balloting. The absence of mandatory drug testing, however, is a major stumbling block for many team executives, including Gabe Paul of the Indians, Ballard Smith of the Padres, Bill Giles of the Phillies, Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox and Hank Peters of the Orioles. "If you don't have a problem," says Peters, "what have you got to lose?" Indeed, some teams have already begun spot-testing their minor-leaguers, and even some big league players favor it. "My mind has changed on this in the last month or so," says Cardinal player rep Tommy Herr. "Why should innocent players protect the ones using drugs by declining to be tested?"

Don Fehr, acting head of the Players Association, feels differently. "The players don't favor everyone having to urinate into a bottle every time someone thinks he's tired," he says. "Under the agreement players will be tested when the medical panel feels it's necessary for diagnostic purposes."

The real question is whether baseball can flush out drug users before they become addicts. The dilemma is that offenders routinely refuse to admit they have a problem. "When the Orioles told me they thought I had a problem, I was in denial," says Baltimore pitcher Dennis Martinez, an alcoholic whose reaction resembled that of a cocaine user. "I felt it was a lot of bull. Finally, I realized I had a problem when it became unmanageable."

Owners are always saying of their own teams, "Well, we're clean." Unfortunately, cocaine use, unlike alcoholism, is extremely hard to detect, especially because it's usually done discreetly. "My wife didn't even know I was into it," says former offender Tim Raines of the Expos. Cocaine's telltale signs are such physical manifestations as a runny nose and excessive sweating, which are also symptoms of colds and fevers. Psychological signs of cocaine use include mood swings and slackened work habits, which can also result from simple depression. So far, law-enforcement officials have collared only those players who blundered into customs inspections or wiretaps set up for nonathletes.

"The best hope," says MacPhail, "may be peer pressure." Not surprisingly, Wilson, Martin and Aikens say they would help a teammate they suspected of having a drug problem. And California's Doug DeCinces says, "It's important for players to realize that a teammate's problem is their problem, too," referring to the obvious fact that teams do best when all players are at their best. But the more common view is expressed by Baltimore's outfielder Jim Dwyer, who says, "If he has a problem, let him take care of it."

For every Don Robinson who helps a Rod Scurry, there may well be a Dave Stewart, who admitted in March that he helped cover up the problems of Steve Howe. "Ballplayers look at drug addiction as self-abuse, not an emotional problem," explains California's John Curtis. "Baseball emphasizes the heroic individual who takes full responsibility for all his problems. It's a simplistic but prevailing view."

After his comeback against Chicago, Wilson took so much time answering questions from the media that a teammate told him the bus to the airport might leave without him. "Don't leave me, man," Wilson said. "I hate to fly by myself."

Wilson—and others—learned the hard way that flying high and alone is the toughest trip in baseball.



Martin spent his time in prison thinking about the pitchers.


"Prison was good for me," says Aikens. "It kept me away from drugs and alcohol."


Raines kept his addiction hidden from his wife


Reinstated before the others, Perez is now 3-0.


The following major-leaguers have been convicted of possession or treated for use of hard drugs within the last five years:

Spring, 1980—Kansas City catcher Darrell Porter (drugs and alcohol) treated at The Meadows, a clinic in Wickenberg, Ariz.

Summer, 1980—Texas pitcher Ferguson Jenkins arrested in Toronto for possession of marijuana, cocaine and hashish. Convicted, but record cleared because of his community service. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended him for season, but an arbitrator reinstated him.

Summer, 1982—San Diego outfielder Alan Wiggins arrested for possession of cocaine. Charges dropped when he completed rehabilitation at California's Orange County CareUnit. Suspended 30 days without pay by Kuhn.

Summer, 1982—San Diego second baseman Juan Bonilla treated at CareUnit.

Fall, 1982—Montreal outfielder Tim Raines treated at CareUnit.

Winter, 1983—Los Angeles outfielder Ken Landreaux treated at The Meadows for "chemical dependency," reportedly cocaine.

Winter, 1983—Los Angeles reliever Steve Howe disclosed he had been treated at The Meadows. During 1983 season, treated twice more at CareUnit, suspended three times by Dodgers, fined $53,867, placed on three years' probation and suspended one year by Kuhn. Currently awaiting grievance hearing.

Summer, 1983—Cardinal outfielder Lonnie Smith treated at the Hyland Center for Drug and Alcohol Abuse in St. Louis.

Fall, 1983—Atlanta reliever Steve Bedrosian and outfielder Claudell Washington admitted cocaine dependency. Washington treated at Merritt Peralta Institute, Oakland. Bedrosian received counseling.

Winter, 1983-84—Outfielders Willie Wilson and Jerry Martin and first baseman Willie Aikens, all Royals players the previous season, convicted of attempting to buy cocaine. Former teammate Vida Blue convicted of possession. They served 81-day sentences at Fort Worth Correctional Facility. Wilson, Martin and Aikens reinstated May 16, 1984 after Wilson and Martin win arbitration case, overturning one-year suspensions imposed by Kuhn. Blue, who was rehabilitated at CareUnit, is no longer playing baseball.

Spring, 1984—Atlanta pitcher Pascual Perez convicted in Dominican Republic of possessing cocaine. Suspended to May 15 by commissioner, but reinstated April 28 after winning grievance.

Spring, 1984—Pirate reliever Rod Scurry treated at Pittsburgh's Gateway Rehabilitation Center.