By Murray Chass

January 27, 2010

In this warped society of ours, steroids are illegal and bad while alcohol is legal and ok or even good, in the view of those who consume it.Miguel Cabrera 225

But I am confused over recent events. Let me see if I have this right. Mark McGwire admitted to using steroids during his career and apologized for his wrongdoing. He has been vilified for his admission, though Cardinals’ fans cheered him lustily.

Miguel Cabrera admitted to being an alcoholic and apologized for his all-night binge on the final weekend of last season, but he is forgiven and eagerly welcomed back to his team, the Tigers.

Cabrera’s abuse of a legal substance – his blood alcohol level was triple Michigan’s legal limit – very likely cost the Tigers the American League Central championship. The Tigers had a one-game lead over the Twins with two games left when Cabrera went out drinking and wound up in a fight with his wife and in police custody. At the end of that weekend the Tigers were tied with the Twins and two days later lost a playoff for first.

McGwire’s use of steroids, on the other hand, resulted in only positive developments for his team and for baseball. His scintillating race with Sammy Sosa in pursuit of the home run record brought baseball back from what some critics say was a precipice of doom following the 1994-95 strike. McGwire slugged 70 home runs, and Cardinals’ attendance soared beyond 3 million.

But steroids are illegal and were at the time McGwire used them and hit more home runs than Babe Ruth, more than Roger Maris, more than he had ever hit before he started using steroids for – ahem – health reasons.

Sosa has never acknowledged using steroids, but circumstantial evidence says overwhelmingly that he did. After never having hit more than 40 homers in a season, he slugged more than 60 three times in four seasons. Cubs’ fans were euphoric, not to mention ecstatic.

But like McGwire, Sosa was cheating. Cabrera cheated, too, but his cheating was different. He cheated his Tigers’ teammates and Tigers’ fans out of the playoffs. Can you imagine a worse time for a team’s best player to pull that kind of stunt? Yet Cabrera was treated like a returning hero.

“All the people were positive, columnists and fans,” Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers’ general manager, said, discussing Cabrera’s public appearance last week in which he disclosed that he was an alcoholic and that he had undergone treatment for alcoholism the previous three months.

“He said he had a problem and he’s working on his problem,” Dombrowski continued, speaking by telephone from Detroit. “He was very forthright about that. The columns written indicated he had changed. He was comfortable, a different person.”

Cabrera, Dombrowski said, did not enter a rehabilitation facility but worked with a doctor at the doctor’s suggestion. “They continue to work on it,”Dombrowski said.

Because the Tigers, who traded Curtis Granderson to the Yankees, seemed to be cutting payroll, speculation arose that they would trade Cabrera, too. “That’s not accurate,” Dombrowski said, “not then or now.”

After the Tigers acquired Cabrera from the Marlins two years ago, they signed him to an 8-year, $152.3 million contract. Six years and $126 million are left on the contract, which would either be a good reason for the Tigers to want to trade Cabrera or for them to make sure he doesn’t repeat the act he pulled last October.

“We worked closely with him on this after the season,” Dombrowski said. “ I have personally stayed in contact with his representative, who has been involved step by step. Yes, we’re very supportive of him. He’s recognized he has a problem and he’s working on it.”

Sam McDowell is a former major league pitcher who in his playing days threw hard and drank harder. Today he is an alcoholic counselor and a consultant for the Baseball Assistance Team. I called him and asked him why Cabrera might have chosen that night to get drunk.

Sam McDowellIt was, after all, premature for the Tigers to celebrate. But he was the team’s No. 1 hitter (.327, 33 home runs, 101 r.b.i.), and maybe he was reacting to his 0-for-4 in an 8-0 loss to the White Sox that sliced Detroit’s lead to one game

“I’m not necessarily sure,” McDowell said.  “When you’re an addict, you take your first drink and that sets you off. The more you do the more you want. Addiction is a form of depression. When you find a drink that changes your feeling, you start enjoying life. When he’s drinking, he feels happier and happier and happier.”

McDowell called it a telltale sign of an alcoholic “when you least expect it or least expect someone to do it, that’s when it happens.”

“That was his way of crying out for help,” McDowell speculated. “I don’t know if that’s true, but with an alcoholic it happens over and over and over. When you’re supposed to have the best time of your life, you ruin it.”

Players, on the other hand, used steroids to enhance their lives, whether it was to make them healthier or better hitters.

“It’s two different worlds, two entirely different things,” McDowell said, speaking of alcohol and steroids. “In the case of steroids, it’s my understanding that either all or the majority of the steroids McGwire took were illegal at the time.”

So even with McDowell the alcoholic counselor, the difference is that alcohol is legal and steroids illegal.

“I see the downside of steroids,” he said, “how it destroys their brain, how they have heart attacks when they’re 45 and 50 years old. It’s a horrendous drug.”

Players, however, do not become addicted to steroids. Once they have used them and have seen what they can do, they want to keep using them, but they can also stop with no irresistible thirst to continue using them. Alcohol takes hold and doesn’t let go.

McDowell said no major league team has a better employee assistance program than the Tigers but added “I don’t care how great your program is; you’re not going to be able to pick out every individual who has a problem until you see something like this happen.”

Baseball has always been ambivalent about alcohol, which has always been a part of the game in some manner. In earlier times players were big drinkers and made no secret of it. They drank in the clubhouse after games and continued drinking at area establishments at night in the era of day games.

Baseball itself and its teams participated, too, by having breweries sponsor games on radio and television. Club owners were some of the biggest drinkers. I recall an owner who was drinking in the press room after a night game and was still there when I arrived for the day game the next day.

So players who drank were just more of the good old boys.

McDowell is right. Steroids are a different world. Non-drinkers never seemed to be bothered by drinkers, but players from the pre-steroids era have made their feelings known about McGwire. Among his critics has been Ferguson Jenkins, the Hall of Fame pitcher. Jenkins recently said that McGwire owes an apology to the pitchers against whom he hit home runs.

What Jenkins overlooked was how many of those pitchers might have been using steroids themselves.

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