Veteran designated hitter Andre Thornton of the Cleveland Indians said it about six years ago: ``Every team in major league baseball has a drug problem.'' Despite the joint efforts of the commissioner's office, individual teams, and the FBI, it still exists, and in fact is far from being under control. How do I know? Because people who are down on the field every day, meaning players and coaches and, in a few rare instances, managers, keep telling me so when I ask them. Why would they talk even this freely to me, a newspaperman? Two reasons. Most of them have known me for a long time; also, it has become understood between us that I would never divulge their names.
How would they handle baseball's ongoing drug problems? Most of them don't have any pat answers. But I've had a few of them suggest that the problem won't end until someone in authority catches a superstar sniffing cocaine and immediately throws the transgressor out of baseball for life. They usually qualify that, however, by adding that in today's legal climate, they doubt if the commissioner's office would risk getting into expensive litigation over such a move.
``Every time a player slumps at the plate, you can't simply assume that drugs are the reason, because every hitter occasionally goes through periods when he loses his rhythm,'' one coach told me. ``But when a player who has always been reliable in the field suddenly starts having trouble with his glove, then you probably should begin to get suspicious.
``I remember this kid we brought up from the minors late in the season a few years ago, when one of our regulars was hurt, and how well this rookie did in the field. In fact he was getting to balls that I doubt if our veteran center fielder could have reached at that point in his career.
``Well, the next time we tried this kid in the outfield, he was dropping easy fly balls that were hit directly at him. Eventually we traded him, and while nobody ever told me the reason, I've always felt that management did it because they believed he was on drugs.''
I had a coach from another team tell me a somewhat similar story, except the player in question was a veteran, who suddenly was unable to perform well in the utility role he had handled easily for years. Results: He was traded several times and later admitted to using cocaine.
Where do players go to get their drugs?
One of my sources told me it wasn't too long ago that he could get all he wanted right in his own clubhouse, often buying from teammates. Now those who sell it make expensive motels, bars, discos, and nightclubs their chief base of operations.
Despite the fact that baseball sends experts around to all the clubs during spring training to talk about drugs, one player told me, ``I don't think too many guys listen even now.
``When I was on drugs my life was a mess,'' this man admitted. ``But if anyone had told me at the time that the fact that I drank a lot and used cocaine had anything to do with it, I wouldn't have believed them. I think there are probably a lot of guys in baseball right now who are just like I used to be.'' New challenges for Fregosi, La Russa
Baseball's annual game of managerial musical chairs is in full swing again this summer. Four teams have already changed pilots since the start of the season, and in each case management went for a replacement who had already spent some time at the helm with at least one other major league team.
First it was Dick Williams assuming the reins in Seattle, then Gene Michael taking over the Chicago Cubs. More recently the Chicago White Sox fired Tony La Russa, replacing him with Jim Fregosi. But La Russa wasn't out of work very long, hooking on late last week as the new skipper of the Oakland A's.
Fregosi, who managed the California Angels in the late 1970s and early '80s, has been plying his trade in the minor leagues while awaiting his next big league opportunity. Jim should do well with the White Sox, but for the moment he may have to forgo his pet strategy of going to the bullpen at the first sign of trouble. Not that this is a bad idea in principle, but so far this season the White Sox relievers have been largely short on saves. Jim will also be without veteran right-hander Tom Seaver, who was traded to the Boston Red Sox.
La Russa had managed Chicago from Aug. 3, 1979, until he was fired two weeks ago -- second only to Detroit's Sparky Anderson for continuous service among current American League pilots.
He led the White Sox to several strong finishes, including the West Division title in 1983 and third place in both 1982 and 1985, but the team has been a disappointment this year and is currently well below the .500 mark.
The A's are even worse off -- buried in the AL West cellar midway into the season -- which explains why they dismissed Jackie Moore and moved quickly to sign La Russa last week. Tony will have his hands full getting this injury-riddled club straightened out, but at least he has the security of a multiyear contract with which to attempt it -- something no other field leader has had under the current Oakland management except for Billy Martin when he ran the club from 1980 through 1982. Ryan vs. Carlton as strikeout pitchers
Although Steve Carlton, who drew a June release from the Philadelphia Phillies, will always be bracketed with Houston's Nolan Ryan as one of baseball's greatest strikeout pitchers (3,982 lifetime), manager Whitey Herzog of the St. Louis Cardinals would give his vote to Ryan as the better of the two in this category.
``For eight years, while Carlton was feeding his strikeout total against opposing National League pitchers, Nolan was in the American League having to deal with designated hitters as a member of the California Angels,'' Herzog told me. ``If Ryan had spent that same time in the National League, Carlton wouldn't even be close to Nolan in strikeouts.'' Bo may get Royal treatment later
Kansas City fans will probably have to wait until Sept. 1, when baseball's rosters expand from 24 to 40 players, before they get their first looks at Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson in a Royals' uniform. Jackson has been assigned to the Memphis Chicks, the club's AA farm club.
While everybody is speculating over the reportedly low dollar figures on the 23-year-old Jackson's multiyear contract, compared with those of most top draft picks, not enough has been said about the beneficial real estate aspects of the deal.
The only question about Bo's baseball skills is the standard one for all young non-pitchers regardless of how great they may be in terms of pure athletic ability: Can he hit a major league curveball? By this time next season we should all know. Elsewhere in the majors
In case you haven't noticed, the New York Mets' vise-like grip on first place in the National League East owes at least part of its success to the platoon system of manager Davey Johnson. Aside from first baseman Keith Hernandez, right fielder Darryl Strawberry, and catcher Gary Carter, who has started virtually every game, Johnson has turned the rest of his roster into a team of interchangeable parts. Although Davey may yet have to make a regular of part-time third baseman Ray Knight because of his hitting, platooning is probably going to continue at the four other positions. Last year when St. Louis won the National League pennant, quite a bit was made of the team's abundance of switch-hitters (Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, Ozzie Smith, Tommy Herr, Jerry White, Terry Pendleton, and even pitcher John Tudor). Nearly everybody viewed this as a big plus for St. Louis. This year, with the Cardinals struggling just to get near the .500 mark, nobody even mentions it.