The fan reaction, a mixture of sorrow, regret and anger, followed disclosures in a federal court in Pittsburgh last week that at least l3 major league baseball players had been habitual users of cocaine. The drug abuse itself came as no surprise. Multiple criminal investigations have focused attention on the problem since 1983, when four Kansas City Royals, including a former American League batting champion (Willie Wilson) and a once sensational pitcher (Vida Blue), were sent to prison for cocaine use and other players were implicated but not prosecuted. The impact of last week's disclosures stemmed from the detailed, often poignant, testimony of baseball heroes who told of their own addiction to drugs and, for the first time, ticked off the names of playing buddies with whom they shared the affliction. The / timing could not have been worse. Despite a one-day strike last month, major league baseball was headed for a banner year, drawing more fans than ever before. Three of the four divisions were locked in supertight races with 30 or so games remaining. Baseball's two biggest markets each had a pair of contenders: New Yorkers dreamed of a Subway Series between the Mets and Yankees, while Los Angelenos fantasized about a Freeway Free-for-All between the Dodgers and Angels. Cincinnati's Pete Rose was closing in on one of the game's most cherished records, Ty Cobb's standard of 4,191 base hits; as the weekend began, he needed only three more to break it. The young Met fireballer, Dwight Gooden, a 20-game winner at the age of 20, was prompting comparisons with the greatest pitchers of the past. But the drug disclosures could not help putting the game under a cloud. Not since the "Black Sox" scandal of 1919, when eight Chicago White Sox players admitted taking bribes from gamblers to fix the World Series, has the national pastime suffered such a loss of public esteem.
Last week's testimony came in the trial of an alleged cocaine dealer, Curtis Strong, a former clubhouse caterer for the Philadelphia Phillies. He was among seven Pennsylvania men indicted on drug-dealing charges last May by a federal grand jury, but the only one so far to insist on a trial (three others pleaded guilty, and no trial dates have been set for the remaining three). In return for promises of cooperation, prosecutors went out of their way to conceal the identity of the players who allegedly bought cocaine from the seven defendants. But Strong's trial destroyed that protective strategy, and the ballplayers were called to testify after being granted immunity from prosecution. Those who took the stand last week readily admitted having used the drug. "I consider cocaine the devil on this earth," testified Keith Hernandez, 31, the New York Mets first baseman, who leads the National League in game-winning hits (19) and who had been a co-winner of the league's Most Valuable Player award as a St. Louis Cardinal in 1979. Describing coke as "a demon in me," he said he had used "massive" amounts starting in 1980 after he and his wife separated, and had then developed an "insatiable desire for more." He contended that there was a "love affair" between baseball players and cocaine in 1980. But Hernandez said under questioning that his claim to the grand jury that 40% of the players were using the drug in 1980 may have been "grossly wrong" and that use has "declined tremendously" since then.
The Met star admitted that he had played under the influence of coke as a Cardinal and had not been able to break the habit until just before he was traded to New York in mid-June of 1983. When he lost ten pounds and awoke one morning with his nose bleeding, he knew he was in trouble. "I had the shakes and I wound up throwing a gram down the toilet," he testified. But what finally turned him off, Hernandez said, was when he saw St. Louis Outfielder Lonnie Smith, who now plays for the Kansas City Royals, have such a "bad experience" with cocaine that he was unable to play in a 1983 game.
The normally calm Hernandez, who has a five-year, $8.4 million contract with the Mets, was clearly uncomfortable as he was asked for the names of other players with whom he had shared cocaine. He cited two former St. Louis teammates: Pitcher Lary Sorensen, 29, who is now with the Chicago Cubs, and Outfielder Bernie Carbo, 38, who retired at the end of the 1980 season.
Smith, 29, who stole 50 bases for the Cardinals last year and led the team in hitting and stolen bases in 1983, admitted on the stand that he had purchased cocaine from Strong in 1982 for himself, Hernandez and another Cardinal star, Pitcher Joaquin Andujar, 32. Smith said that the coke was wrapped in pages from "girlie magazines" and was sometimes sent to him by express mail. At the time, Andujar was the leading pitcher on the St. Louis team that won the World Series. This year he was the first pitcher in the majors to win 20 games. Smith, who went through a drug-rehabilitation program in 1983, also named three other players as drug users: Gary Matthews, 35, who led the National League last year in game-winning hits (19) for the Eastern Division champion Chicago Cubs and starred for Philadelphia when the Phillies won the league pennant a year earlier; Dickie Noles, 28, a lackluster pitcher for the Phillies and now the Texas Rangers; and Dick Davis, 31, a former Phillies outfielder currently playing in Japan.
More names were added to the cocaine roster when Enos Cabell, 35, a former Houston Astros infielder now with the Dodgers, testified that his drug habit began in 1978 and reached a peak in 1981. "That was the strike year and we weren't playing and I had nothing to do," he explained. He said he finally quit in May of 1984. Cabell claimed that he had shared cocaine with four players: Dave Parker, 34, a two-time batting champion in Pittsburgh before going to Cincinnati last year, where he led the Reds in runs batted in (94); California Angels Al Holland, 33, a relief pitcher who set a club record of 29 saves last year with the Phillies; Jeff Leonard, 29, a San Francisco Giants outfielder who hit 21 home runs in 1984; and J.R. Richard, 35, the once overpowering Houston pitcher who suffered a stroke in 1980 and was released last year.
Other players whom the prosecution has said it will call in the case were described in opening court statements as cocaine users. They included Dale Berra, 28, a Yankee infielder who spent eight years with Pittsburgh; Baltimore Orioles Lee Lacy, 36, an outfielder who was runner-up for the National League batting title last year at Pittsburgh with a .321 average; Rod Scurry, 29, a Pittsburgh pitcher who entered a drug-treatment program in the spring of 1984; and John Milner, a former Met and Pirate first baseman.
The opposing attorneys in the case had sharply contrasting views of its significance. "Major league baseball is not on trial here," Assistant U.S. Attorney James Ross told the jurors. "Curtis Strong is." But Strong's defense lawyer, Adam Renfroe, insisted that the game was indeed on trial and that the players were "nothing but junkies." He called them "hero- criminals" who "sell drugs and are still selling drugs to baseball players around the league." His client, Renfroe charged, was being used as a "scapegoat" for the players, who are "rich and powerful and have been given immunity so they do not have to worry about going to jail."
Whether they will also avoid some kind of discipline by organized baseball is not yet clear. Baseball has punished some of its drug users in the past, including former Los Angeles Dodger Pitcher Steve Howe, who was suspended from the sport for a year at the end of 1983. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who has called drug abuse the most serious problem facing baseball, refused to comment on the Pittsburgh trial. Apparently anticipating the revelations, he publicly announced last spring a tough policy of mandatory testing for drugs among minor league players and umpires, but his plan could not be applied to major leaguers because of a contractual agreement between the club owners and players' union that provides only for voluntary testing. Says Don Fehr, head of the players' union: "Chemical abuse is a medical problem and should be treated like one, presupposing the doctor-client relationship and its confidentiality."
Baseball, of course, is not the only professional sport with a drug problem. The National Football League has had numerous publicized cases of drug abuse recently. Just last week the N.F.L. suspended Minnesota Vikings Running Back Chuck Muncie because he failed to attend two therapy sessions after completing a basic drug-treatment program. The league's policy permits club owners to order on-the-spot drug tests if they have "reasonable cause" to do so. If a player refuses to submit, he can be suspended and then appeal the suspension to a grievance board. The National Basketball Association permits a player to seek voluntary treatment without any penalty, but anyone who does not do so and is found by the owners to be a drug user can be prohibited from playing.
Baseball's defenders were quick to point out that last week's drug revelations related to earlier offenses. "These are old cases that give no cause for new concern," insisted Robert Fishel, executive vice president of the major league players relations committee, which represents the owners. Indeed, some baseball insiders feel that cocaine use is declining, in part because of recent publicity.
Ueberroth has explained that his object is to "get rid of drugs, not players." Thus his emphasis has been on treatment rather than punishment. Some of the players are beginning to favor the commissioner's mandatory testing program as they see the damage that the cocaine scandal is doing to their sport. "There is a growing faction of players that are tired of protecting drug users," St. Louis Cardinals Second Baseman Tommy Herr, the team's player representative, said last week.
While preferring the voluntary system, Steve Garvey of the San Diego Padres concedes that strong measures should be taken against any player who is given a second chance and fails it. "I'm most concerned about influencing the next generation of fans," he explains. "If we allow players to take drugs and come back, what does that tell the kids?"