Although almost everyone inside the game knows that major league baseball has a drug problem (mostly cocaine), there is really no way of getting a sounding on how deep the trouble goes. But it's big enough now so that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has assigned a special unit to the problem.
In some cases, players haven't waited to be discovered. The latest one in this category was Lonnie Smith, who confessed his drug problem to St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog last week. The speedy outfielder, who was second in the National League MVP voting last year and starred for the Cardinals in their World Series victory, has entered a treatment program and will be out of the lineup for the next three weeks.
Players who have been caught or admitted to using drugs almost always agree to go to a rehabilitation center at their club's expense and vow never to do it again. What they won't agree to do is identify their supplier or suppliers by name.
''Of course they won't tell who is selling them drugs,'' said former big league pitcher Don Newcombe, a reformed alcoholic who now handles such problems for the Los Angeles Dodgers. ''Today's player who uses drugs is dealing with a very tough element of people. Players are reluctant to turn in a pusher for obvious reasons.'' Asked if what he meant was that the players feared physical reprisals or even being killed if they did, Newcombe said that he wanted nothing to do with that question.
Most ballplayers, according to reports, now get their drugs either in hotel bars, discos, or nightclubs. They could get it a lot cheaper off the street, but prefer the places previously named because they know the drugs will be clean. They pay plenty for it, but can get it anytime they want it - and what's a few extra dollars to a man making $300,000 or $400,000 a year?
Danielle Gagnon Torrez, former wife of New York Mets pitcher Mike Torrez, writes in her book ''High Inside'': ''At parties, cocaine was sometimes as common as table salt. With new high salaries, only the highest quality was kept around. Players used it both to forget bad performances and to enhance their self-confidence for upcoming games. If you stayed late at a party, the host would sometimes bring out glass jars filled with all types of pills - red, green , blue, white. These jars would be plopped onto a coffee table, like a giant vase of M&Ms.'' Strikeout standouts
Steve Carlton, who earlier this year broke Walter Johnson's old record and also caught and passed current rival Nolan Ryan, continues to strike out batters at a rate that should secure his place as baseball's all-time leader.
As most fans know, the Philadelphia left-hander hasn't spoken to writers in approximately five years because of the loose way (he says) that most of them handle quotes. But if Carlton won't talk about himself, teammate Pete Rose will.
''Steve, because of the way he takes care of his body and the special exercises he does, is the strongest pitcher in baseball,'' Rose explained. ''Physically he's like 10 years younger than his actual age. But he's not obsessed with strikeouts, the way you might think. Steve is happiest when he goes nine innings, gets by with throwing fewer than 100 pitches, and wins.''
Meanwhile Ryan told reporters recently that when the day comes when he can no longer throw hard, he'll simply walk away from the game. ''Although I know a lot of guys have prolonged their big league careers by learning to throw a knuckleball, I won't change the kind of pitcher I've been just to stay around,'' the Houston right-hander said. Nolan, whose current agreement with the Astros is up at the end of this season, anticipates signing one more big league contract. The guessing is that he will ask for three years. Tidbits from around the majors
* Although it's still a long way from here to the end of the season in October, the leading candidate so far for American League Rookie of the Year is Ron Kittle of the Chicago White Sox. Kittle, who generates so much power that he should be selling some of it back to the electric company, has been among the league leaders all season in home runs and RBIs. The right-handed hitting outfielder was released by the Los Angeles Dodger organization in 1978 after a neck injury restricted his swing, but led the Pacific Coast League in home runs last year with 50 in 127 games.
* Two of the hottest teams in baseball right now are the Detroit Tigers (15 wins in their last 18 games through Monday) and the Chicago Cubs (10 in their last 12). Explanation: the usual one - robust hitting and good pitching both surfacing at exactly the same time. Another team to keep your eye on is Houston, which is now close to a .500 record after a horrible start.
* The Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees had something going for awhile that would have sent Yankee catcher Rick Cerrone to the Dodgers for a pitcher. It ended when New York reportedly kept insisting on 24-year-old, right-hander Alejandro Pena in return. But don't be surprised if negotiations resume next winter.
* The National Bureau of Standards claims that a curveball, spinning at 1,600 r.p.m., will deflect up to 141/2 inches on its way to home plate. Other tests show that a good fastball pitcher (meaning in the 90 to 100 m.p.h. class) will hit the catcher's glove in .4 of a second. And yes, Virginia, a hard-hit baseball does compress about an inch before springing back to its original shape.