TIME TO CHANGE SUBJECT TO ALCOHOL

By Murray Chass

January 20, 2013

Nearly two weeks later the debate rages on over the outcome of the Hall of Fame voting. It has dominated baseball’s off-season. Even the Hall of Famers themselves, elected by the writers in a less controversial, less contentious, time, have added their views.

But as the all-steroids, all-the-time discussion has gone on, it has prompted a long-nagging question in my mind: why steroids and not alcohol?

Asked that question, baseball people usually give the simple answer: alcohol is legal, steroids are not. Or they might add: alcohol doesn’t enhance performance; steroids do.Carlton Fisk DUI 225

However, to repeat the start of a column I wrote nearly six years ago, “Alcohol last week killed one more major league baseball player than steroids ever have.”

I referred to the automobile fatality of Josh Hancock, a St. Louis Cardinals’ pitcher, whom the club knew to be a frequent and a heavy drinker.

Carlton Fisk was a lot luckier than Hancock. The Hall of Fame catcher recently pleaded guilty to drunk driving two months after police found him asleep in his pickup truck in a cornfield in a Chicago suburb. The 65-year-old Fisk wasn’t there resting up for a game in the field of dreams.

In probably the most interesting piece of the hundreds of thousands of words that have been written about the Hall of Fame election and the writers’ rejection of known and suspected steroids users, the Associated Press quoted several Hall of Fame players as welcoming the writers’ shutout of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, among others.

“I’m kind of glad that nobody got in this year,” Al Kaline said. “I feel honored to be in the Hall of Fame. And I would’ve felt a little uneasy sitting up there on the stage, listening to some of these new guys talk about how great they were.”

Rich (Goose) Gossage had previously been quoted as saying players who used steroids should not be in the Hall of Fame, and he didn’t alter his position post-vote.

“I think the steroids guys that are under suspicion got too many votes,” he said. “I don’t know why they’re making this such a question and why there’s so much debate. To me, they cheated. Are we going to reward these guys?”

The players the AP talked to didn’t mention Fisk and most likely weren’t asked about his transgression. But most Hall of Famers have been sitting on the Cooperstown stage with him since he was elected in 2000 and probably will again this coming July or in future Julys. Why will Fisk’s DUI not make him a pariah in their midst?

I can guess the answer they would give if they were asked. Drinking is legal. It isn’t cheating. It doesn’t enhance performance. It doesn’t create an unbalanced playing field. And one answer they wouldn’t articulate: There but for the grace of G-d go I.

On the heels of Fisk’s guilty plea, which got him a year of court supervision and drug and alcohol evaluation and counseling, another former all-star player resurfaced in the same arena.

Mark Grace was participating in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ fantasy camp even though the team had fired him as its television analyst after he was arrested last August, the second time in 15 months he was arrested for drunk driving. He pleaded not guilty to four felony counts of aggravated DUI and is scheduled for trial March 19.Mark Grace DUI

Fisk and Grace, of course, are retired players no longer subject to the authority of the baseball commissioner. But there are enough DUI subjects still in baseball to wonder what’s going on: Miguel Cabrera, Coco Crisp, Derek Lowe, Austin Kearns, Adam Kennedy, Shin-Soo Choo, Michael Pineda, Bobby Jenks, Joba Chamberlain, Cristhian Martinez, Alex White and assorted minor leaguers.

“You’re right; we focus on steroids and amphetamines, which have been around for 100 years,” Commissioner Bud Selig said in a telephone interview in response to a statement I made about alcohol. “But alcohol is a very serious situation. I’m very sensitive about that.”

Although appearances might make it seem that baseball has ignored alcohol, it has not, though results have not been noticeable publicly.

“We negotiated changes in how alcohol is dealt with in the last round of collective bargaining,” Michael Weiner, the head of the union, said, referring to the labor contract that took effect 13 months ago. “The doctors have always dealt with alcohol issues, players who have alcohol issues or have potential issues with other things.”

One change Weiner cited requires a player who is charged with DUI to meet with Major League Baseball’s joint treatment board, which consists of one doctor and one lawyer from each side.

Alcohol matters are covered in Attachment 27, which was added to the basic agreement between the clubs and the union. It states:

“…the parties have agreed to establish a Joint Treatment Program to deal with certain alcohol-related conduct and off-field violent conduct by Major League Players during the term of the 2012-2016 Basic Agreement.”

The last paragraph of the page-and-a-half attachment declares that a player’s participation in a treatment program is voluntary and that refusal to participate does not subject the player to discipline. At the same time, it says, a player’s referral to the treatment board does not preclude the club from taking disciplinary action.

The treatment board, Weiner explained, determines “whether players can benefit from a treatment program or not, with the recognition that a lot of people who are charged with alcohol-related crimes were caught making a mistake and don’t have alcohol-related problems.”

Cabrera, last season’s American League most valuable player, was not one of those “caught making a mistake.”Miguel Cabrera 225

A year and a half apart he had two incidents that brought him in contact with the police. Hours before the start of the Tigers’ final series of the 2009 season, Cabrera wound up in jail after an alcohol-induced fight with his wife. The incident very likely cost the Tigers the division title, which they lost in a playoff game to Minnesota.

Two Februarys later, on the eve of the start of spring training, Cabrera was pulled over in Florida and charged with DUI.

After the first incident, he underwent outpatient treatment. After the second, he was assigned a monitor for the entire 2011 season. The Tigers, though, did not discipline Cabrera.

When I asked a Tigers’ spokesman about the absence of disciplinary action, he said that was up to the commissioner’s office. When I asked Selig, he said, “I normally leave these things to the clubs, but you raise a very good point. If the club isn’t doing enough, then I have to get involved.”

As far as I know, the Cardinals did nothing in 2007 when its manager, Tony La Russa, was arrested in Florida during spring training for driving under the influence. Police found him asleep at the wheel at an intersection in Jupiter near the St. Louis training camp.

After La Russa pleaded guilty in November to drunk driving, the team’s principal owner, Bill DeWitt Jr. declined to comment, saying, “We addressed this matter with Tony last season and the nature of those discussions will remain private.” The matter, he added, was closed.

The Pittsburgh Pirates apparently did nothing after their president, Frank Coonelly, who previously was a labor lawyer in the commissioner’s office, was arrested in December 2011. News of the arrest didn’t even surface for two months.

Coonelly was charged with DUI, careless driving and driving the wrong way. He subsequently apologized, calling his actions “irresponsible and wrong.” But he offered no explanation for hiding the arrest for two months.

And then there is Matt Bush, who has surpassed Josh Hamilton in killing his career. An unemployed pitcher who was a high school shortstop when San Diego made him the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft, Bush has hit the jackpot. He has turned his third DUI conviction in 10 years into a 51-month prison sentence.

Bush, 26, completed his baseball destruction last March when he ran over a motorcycle – with the 72-year-old motorcyclist on it –and kept going, telling police after he was arrested that he didn’t remember hitting anything or anybody.

Hamilton, the 2010 American League most valuable player, squandered four years as he struggled to overcome alcohol and drug demons. Bush will very likely spend that much time in prison. Besides their drinking problems, the two players have one thing in common. Both were in the Rays organization.

Hamilton, however, found life after the Rays. For Bush, life after the Rays, who released him last October, is prison.

REYES A VICTIM OF LORIA’S LIES

Jose Reyes Marlins 225After nine years, the Mets had no use for Jose Reyes and tossed him onto the free-agent pile, making no effort or offer to re-sign him. So the newly named, quartered and uniformed Miami Marlins made a big splash by singing him to a 6-year, $106 million contract.

Then after only a year in Miami, Reyes again was unwanted. This time, however, Reyes was surprised when the Marlins traded him to Toronto because he had it on good authority, or so he thought, that he would be a long-time member of the Marlins.

In his initial appearance in Toronto the shortstop said last week that the Marlins’ owner, Jeffrey Loria, had given him different information.

“Five days before I got traded,” Reyes related, “I was with the owner of the Miami Marlins and he said he was never going to trade me.”

It would be easy to say that’s baseball, but it would be more accurate to say that’s Loria.

Not surprisingly, Loria did not return a telephone call seeking comment on what Reyes said Loria told him. It wouldn’t be the first time Loria lied.

Among other instances, I recall that several years ago, when I called Loria to find out something about the team’s new park, he told me it wasn’t finished and that he would call me when it was finished and tell me whatever I wanted to know. The Marlins began playing at Marlins Park opening day last year. I still haven’t heard from him. I guess he lost my number.

THIS EARL WAS A DIAMOND PEARL

They don’t make them like Earl Weaver anymore. In fact, with Weaver joining Sparky Anderson, there’s not much reason for baseball writers to visit managers’ offices anymore. They were the best.lEarl Weaver 225

Weaver died last Saturday at the age of 82, apparently of a heart attack while on a Caribbean cruise.

The feisty Weaver, who guided the Baltimore Orioles to six league championship series and four World Series, managed his last game in 1986. He actually retired after the 1982 season but returned to manage the last two-thirds of the 1985 season and all of 1986.

After he came back, he told me why, blaming it on the economy. “I had it all figured out,” he said. “I had enough money to live on, but then the economy changed and I had to go back to work and make some more money.”

When I brought up that reason years later, he denied having said it. But my guess was he was too proud a man to admit that he somehow had made a mistake.

The Orioles under Weaver were the best clubhouse a reporter could cover. He encouraged his players to talk to us and set the example.

He especially liked the New York writers and enjoyed talking to us, either individually or as a group. There was one time when he chewed us out. The Yankees were playing in Baltimore, but there was something happening before the first game of the series that required our presence in the visiting clubhouse.

When a couple of us walked into the home clubhouse before the second game of the series, Weaver barked at us in his gravelly voice. “Where were you guys last night?” he demanded to know.

There was one other time when Weaver demonstrated his fondness for the press, as well as his players. It was the league championship series in 1979, Orioles vs. Angels. Baltimore won the first two games of the best-of-five series and led the third game in Anaheim, 3-2, going into the Angels’ half of the ninth.

The first two batters reached base, and Bobby Grich lofted a routine fly to center field. It was an easy catch for the talented center fielder Al Bumbry, but he inexplicably dropped the ball. Rod Carew scored the tying run, and moments later Brian Downing scored the winning run.

After the game, Bumbry, a Vietnam veteran, was distraught. He stood in the shower, crying. Weaver walked by and saw him. The manager, still in uniform, marched into the shower.

“You have nothing to be ashamed of,” Weaver told Bumbry. “Go out there, stand at your locker and answer all the reporters’ questions.”

Bumbry did precisely that. He stood there until every last question was asked, winning the admiration of the reporters. Those who had seen Weaver’s moment in the shower with Bumbry admired the manager even more.

REMEMBERING A MAN WORTH REMEMBERING

Marvin Miller4 150Dave Winfield, Joe Morgan, Phil Garner, Rusty Staub, Steve Rogers and Buck Martinez are scheduled to be among the speakers Monday evening at a celebration of the life and achievements of Marvin Miller, the union leader, who died Nov. 27 at the age of 95.

Although Miller’s son, Peter, has expressed the desire that people stop talking about Miller’s absence from the Hall of Fame, it’s a good bet that at least some of the speakers will bring up the controversial subject.

The event is scheduled for 6 p.m.at Tishman Auditorium in Vanderbilt Hall at New York University

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