Baseball vs. drugs: national game's image at stake?

Major league baseball, whether it wants to admit how deeply the problem goes or not, is involved in an escalating war with drugs like alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine.

At stake is the family image of baseball, the well-being of perhaps 50 percent of its players, and possibly even its future -- although the latter is sheer speculation at this point.

When pitcher Ferguson Jenkins of the Texas Rangers was arrested recently in Canada on charges of possession of cocaine and other illegal drugs, it was merely the tip of the iceberg, said one veteran scout.

In fact, according to first baseman Andre Thornton of the Cleveland Indians, every big-league franchise has a drug problem that it can ill afford to ignore.

"Some clubs have major problems, while other have just two or three players who are users," Thornton told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "But a drug culture does exist in baseball; alcoholism is raging; and a lot of players are using amphetamines on a regular basis."

Unlike Thornton, most players this reporter interviewed either refused to discuss the drug situation or insisted they would do so only if their names were not used. Yet, one major league manager went so far as to say that the drug problem in baseball begins throwing users out of the game for life.

Baseball is far from the only sport affected by the problem. On the contrary , there have been many allegations of widespread drug use among pro football and basketball players in recent years. And all of this serves to emphasize the seriousness of the situation in society as a whole.

The growth of the problem in baseball, however, was perhaps less recognized by the public than in other sports and is thus more noteworthy now that its extent is becoming known.

One of the premier black stars of the game says more than 50 percent of all players are involved with one kind of drug or another, with the heaviest use among blacks and Latins. And alcoholism is so widespread that som clubs already have set up in-house programs to deal with it.

In recent months Bob Welch, a 23-year-old pitcher with the Los Angeles Dodgers, underwent treatment for alcoholism, then told his story in the hope of helping others.

Soon after, catcher Darrell Porter of the Kansas City Royals voluntarily left the team for help in meeting a drug and alcoholism problem and was cured.

"Most players don't really know what drugs and booze can do to them," Porter said recently. "Even though baseball sends Don Newcombe [a Brooklyn Dodger star pitcher of the 1950s and reformed alcoholic] around to talk to every team during spring training, I don't think too many guys bother to listen."

"With me, it wasn't a case of not knowing that I had problems," Porter continued. "My life was a mess. But if anyone had told me at the time that my problem had anything to do with the fact that I drank a lot and used drugs, I wouldn't have believed them. I blamed it on a lot of other things, and it wasn't until I realized what was happening on my own that I decided to do something about it."

Asked what percentage of ballplayers use drugs and alcohol regularly, Porter replied: "To me, drugs are now a way of life in the United States. I don't think baseball should be singled out as worse than any other business. And don't think that there aren't a lot of policemen on drugs."

Even many of those who are willing to discuss the rpoblem are at a loss to come up with possible solutions, but Porter offered one interesting proposal.

"What baseball probably needs is a program where a player, by calling a certain number, can get help without blowing his cover," he said. "I think if guys knew they could do something like this without their teammates or club knowing it, baseball would begin to get a handle on this thing."

Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, asked how bad the problem has become, emphasized the difference between amphetamines used as stimulants and other types of drugs.

"As far as amphetamines go . . . I think we've done a pretty good job," Kuhn told the Monitor. "I don't say there's no use now, but we thinkit's relatively small. We're in good shape -- probably better than other sports with a more demanding style of play.

"As to the degree of usage of other types of drugs today, it's very hard to give you a precise answer. I'm sure there's usage in our ranks -- probably about the same as in society as a whole. We're certainly trying to combat it. I've heard people say that we're complacent; that the only problem is when a player gets caught. That just isn't true. We do our best to ferret it out. But we need information, and it's not too easy to find players who say they are doing it. Whenever we do get information, we take action.

"If you ask me the percentage, I don't think it's anything like the 50 to 70 percent that some have alleged in basketball. But I'm concerned about any level of use."

Asked if he would ever go so far as to throw a drug user out of baseball permanently, the commissioner replied:

"If you had a very aggravated case, perhaps supplying drugs and trafficking in them, I would think that would call for severe sanctions. To take a parallel case, if a player gambled on a game in which he was involved, he would be out for life -- no question about it."

Could he conceive of also going this far in a drug case?

"I would take each case individually," he said. "Let's just say in an aggravated case there would be severe sanctions."

Perhaps the two biggest things that turn players to drugs, according to one star, are the pressure to do well in every game and the boredom that comes from constant traveling and suddenly discovering that all hotel rooms look the same.

"Unless you've been a part of the big leagues yourself, to produce," this star explained. "There are already two or three guys on the club who are after your job, and who knows how many more in the minors.

"You go nothing-for-five at the plate a couple of days in a row and right away you start to press and look over your shoulder," he continued. "I mean, you get taken out of the lineup and maybe you don't get back in for a long time.

"So you take a little something [drugs], either because you think it might make you stronger, or that maybe it will help you relax, or because some other guy said it worked for him. Pretty soon you're using it all the time. And this is in addition to what you drink in bars at night, especially when you're on the road and you can't sleep."

Asked where most players get drugs, this player replied:

"Back in the '60s when nobody knew too much about drugs, you could get them in the clubhouse. You know, all kinds of pills, greenies, and this stuff called red juice that really made you feel strong.

"But eventually the league and management realized what was going on and moved to stop it. Now, if you try to get something from the trainer, he won't deliver anything without a prescription from the team doctor.

"Most ballplayers now get their drugs either in bars, discos, or night clubs, where they are treated like royalty and where they don't have to worry whether the stuff is clean or not. I don't mean they don't have to pay for it; they pay plenty. But they can get it any time they want it, and what's a few extra bucks to a guy making $200,000 a year?"

Why do some ballplayers fall into this trap?

"I think it probably starts in Little League," said one player who retired less than two years ago. "The kid who excels gets a lot of attention and special favors, and pretty soon the high-school coach starts coming around, and if the parents can't handle this -- well, the kid sure can't.

"Most ballplayers are thrust into a situation early where they never have to grow up," he continued. "Everybody wants to do something for them, and when the big money comes, they start living like there's no tomorrow.

"My wife put up with me acting like a kid for 10 years. And now that I look back, I don't know why she bothered. All I ever gave her was trouble. I never grew up until I couldn't get that one more chance in the majors. But then I grew up fast. I used to spend $25,000 a year just on tips, baby sitters, alcohol, maintaining a second home, and living it up. Now I have to struggle to make that much."

One major league manager, Sparky Anderson of the Detroit Tigers, even goes so far as to suggest a link between drug use and the anusually high number of beanball incidents this season.

Says Anderson, "Although those things usually run in cycles, maybe it's because so many guys are smoking that funny stuff."

Did Sparky mean marijuana and other drugs?

"You call it whatever you want," he says, "But to me it's that funny stuff!"

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