Further Reading


Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1985, Part 2, Page 5

Ballplayers Put a Twist on Drug 'Truths'

Stanton Peele
Morristown, NJ


Testimony by several baseball players at the cocaine-trafficking trial of a Philadelphia caterer gave us an unaccustomed glimpse of drug use in the major leagues. This insider picture is worthwhile because it contrasts, sometimes radically, with ideas we gather about cocaine from calls to 800-number hot lines. Some of the key points the ballplayers have disclosed:

Cocaine and other drug use is commonplace. Keith Hernandez, now with the New York Mets, estimated, for example, that perhaps 40% of major-leaguers were using cocaine in the peak period of 1980. Testimony has also emerged that Pittsburgh star Willie Stargell, among others, freely distributed amphetamines in the locker room. Cincinnati's Pete Rose has admitted taking amphetamines. (An article in Scientific American reported that experienced cocaine users cannot distinguish that drug from amphetamines.)

Drug use often coincides with exceptional performances. The year 1979, in which Stargell allegedly distributed pills, and other teammates — including Dave Parker — used cocaine, was the season the Pirates won the World Series and Stargell was the series hero. In 1980, the year that Hernandez reports he went "crazy" on cocaine, he was second in the National League in hitting with a .321 average.

Drug use does not invariably get worse. Most of the men testifying or mentioned before the federal jury are notable because they were not arrested or treated for their drug use. Given Hernandez's figures, the vast majority of major-league ballplayers using cocaine eventually cut back and quit, as Hernandez finally did. Although he'd had a considerable cocaine problem, Hernandez said he used it less because "it wasn't enjoyable at all." He finally quit in 1983 when he saw the drug's effect on teammate Lonnie Smith.

Enos Cabell, now with the Dodgers, testified that he quit in 1984 (he began using the drug in 1978) because "I was getting older and had too much to lose." Parker, now with Cincinnati, testified he stopped using cocaine in 1982 because "I felt my game was slipping and I feel it (cocaine) played some part."

Those who seek treatment do not always have the best prognosis. Pitcher Steve Howe used cocaine regularly with other players. Howe relapsed several times after being treated, and eventually asked to be traded to the Dodgers because he thought that the West Coast environment encouraged his drug dependence. After a short stay in Minnesota, however, Howe relapsed again.

Why do I make these points? Simply to indicate that drug use follows the complicated patterns common to many human activities with the potential for becoming destructive. This we already know is the case with alcohol. It can also be true of gambling, eating and even love relationships. These "addictions" are not like classic diseases in following a course that is independent of the individual's personality and setting.

Some players, like Howe, found they became addicted more readily than their teammates. For others, temporary situations like an injury seemed to bring on periods of heavy use. Hernandez rejected the contention that "once an addict, always an addict." Certainly, he and many others succeeded best by taking their rehabilitation in their own hands.

It is customary to underline a less-than-total condemnation of all drug use with a disclaimer that drug use is indeed harmful and that the author does not condone or encourage such use. I will dispense with this warning, simply because it has been issued continuously since the 1960s to baseball players, young people and others — and without overwhelming success. More than 60% of high school seniors have used an illicit drug; a 1982 government survey found that 22 million Americans have taken cocaine.

It was 1982 when President Reagan proclaimed his "war on cocaine," and a swarm of public announcements began airing on the dangers of the drug. Since that time, it is generally agreed, street supplies of cocaine have increased and there are more cocaine users than at any time previously. Apparently, warning people about the inevitable addictive consequences of certain drugs does not create the best atmosphere for eliminating drug abuse and addiction, given that large numbers of them are willing to use these substances anyway.

What is clear is that it is impossible to successfully prohibit all use of psychoactive substances. Instead, the best defense against their negative effects is to put the dangers of drugs in perspective, to emphasize to people that with drugs all around, they will have to be responsible for their own behavior.

I also would observe that drug use diminishes when the user has something else going that makes the rewards of the drug pale by comparison. Of course, I have already been beaten to the punch by the testimony of the ballplayers.