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Baseball’s cocaine blues

She don’t lie.

Cocaine. What symbolism does that word bring to your mind? Musicians have sung about the drug for decades. The German army used it to reinvigorate exhausted troops. Famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud once thought cocaine to be a miracle drug. In the early 1900s, Coca-Cola used to contain trace amounts of the drug. It’s been the drug of choice for the brutally handsome and terminally pretty party crowd for eons. If you were of age between 1965 and 1985, and anywhere close to the party scene, you probably indulged at one point or another.

As a child of the 1970s and early ’80s, I will admit that in my younger, wilder years I sampled both the powder form and the freebase derivative. Not my best moments, but when you’re young you’re often stupid as well. Freebase was made famous by comedian Richard Pryor. Pryor was one of the funniest comedians ever and his riff on blowing himself up while freebasing is still a hilarious, and dark, classic. How do you explain a cocaine high? The best I can do is that it is an orgasm of the brain. The drug makes you feel euphoric. Energetic. Alert. If you wanted to stay up all night to perform music, or dance, or have sex, cocaine was the drug for you. You got bad news. You wanna kick them blues. She don’t lie. Cocaine.

Robin Williams famously said that cocaine was God’s way of telling you that you’re making too much money. That is true and false. The elite denizens of Hollywood, Wall Street, politics, and the sports world used their money and fame to celebrate amid piles of the white stuff. During the 1994 filming of Street Fighter, the movie’s producer Steven de Souza said that Jean-Claude Van Damme was snorting up to $10,000 a week of blow. On the other end of the spectrum, scores of impoverished crack cocaine users will beg to differ on the money issue.

Cocaine made its way into professional sports in a big way in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By 1980, it was estimated that anywhere from 50 to 75% of players in the NBA were using cocaine on a regular basis. There were also rumors that several members of the New York Knicks were throwing games to help finance their blow habit. You could field an all-star team with the NBA players who admitted a drug habit or went to rehab. Several players were eventually banned for life after the NBA tightened its drug usage rules. I’m not saying the NBA was the only professional sports league with a coke problem. They weren’t. I’m certain the NFL and the NHL had their share of coke heads. Do you think professional wrestling might have had a coke problem? The thought is almost laughable. It was certainly a problem with major league baseball.

The sports world's tolerance of cocaine took an abrupt turn on the morning of June 20, 1986. People awoke to the stunning news that the Boston Celtics Len Bias, who had just been the second-overall pick in the NBA draft a few days earlier, had died of cardiac arrhythmia after ingesting cocaine at an off-campus party. Bias was a first-team All-American at Maryland in 1986, an exciting and dynamic player who drew comparisons to Michael Jordan. Bias’ death was a major blow to the Celtics, who envisioned him leading the Celtics in the post-Larry Bird era. Just eight days later, Cleveland Brown’s safety Don Rogers died from a cocaine-fueled heart attack, just two days shy of his wedding. Rogers had been a first-round draft choice in the 1984 draft out of UCLA.

The shocking deaths of Bias and Rogers were the blowout (no pun intended) of nearly two decades of cocaine use by American athletes. Baseball’s love affair with illicit substances falls into three distinct eras - from 1950 to 1965, amphetamines, often known as greenies or speed, was the drug of choice in the clubhouse. From 1970 to 1985, it was coke. 1990 to 2005 would become known as the Steroid Era.

Baseball’s cocaine problem crept into the national consciousness in March of 1980 when Royals catcher Darrell Porter abruptly left spring training and checked into a rehab facility in Arizona. Retired Brooklyn Dodger star Don Newcombe, himself a recovering alcoholic, had addressed the team. He asked them ten questions and said if you answered yes to three or more, you have a problem with drugs or alcohol. Porter answered yes to all ten. He immediately left camp for a rehab facility in Wickenburg, Arizona. He was one of the first high-profile athletes to seek help for his substance abuse.

I once wrote about Porter, one of my all-time favorite Royals. He said that during his brilliant 1979 season he was using up to a gram of coke each day. He put up a career-best OPS+ of 142 that summer and finished ninth in the MVP voting. He should have been third in the MVP vote behind Fred Lynn and teammate George Brett, but voters were still awed by home run and RBI totals. Porter also said that once during a car ride from Denver to Kansas City he snorted seven grams of coke. Most medical sites state that anything from one to three grams can be lethal. It boggles my mind to think that a human being can snort seven grams of cocaine in a 600-mile drive and live to talk about it. But Porter was a world-class athlete, and his body was able to withstand that degree of toxicity. Unfortunately, Porter relapsed and on August 5, 2002 and died from what is called excited delirium brought on by the toxic effects of cocaine. It was a devastating loss for Royals Nation.

After Porter went to rehab, the dominos fell slowly at first, then picked up alarming speed. In August of 1980, Ferguson Jenkins, arguably the greatest baseball player in Canadian history, was arrested at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto for possession of marijuana, cocaine, and hashish. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, wanting to make an example of Jenkins, permanently suspended him from baseball. That ruling was appealed and overturned and by September 22, Fergie was back in action.

In July of 1982, Padre outfielder Alan Wiggins was arrested for possession of cocaine. He was suspended for 30 days and spent a month in a rehab facility. Sadly, Wiggins could never defeat his demons and succumbed to AIDS in 1991, brought on by intravenous drug use.

Portrait of Tim Raines
Tim Raines

After a disappointing season in 1982, Montreal Expos star Tim Raines checked into a rehab facility to get a grip on his cocaine use. Raines stated he would usually carry his cocaine in his pocket while playing and stated that he spent upwards of $40,000 in 1982 on his habit. Expos President John McHale later blamed cocaine use for the failure of his team to win the National League East in 1982.

In early 1983, Dodger outfielder Ken Landreaux checked into rehab for chemical dependency. Landreaux battled addiction when his playing days ended and was eventually able to achieve sobriety. He later became a counselor at Bellwood Health Center in California and later co-founded the Athletic Connection Team to help athletes with substance abuse problems.

Around the same time, Dodger pitcher Steve Howe, the 1980 Rookie of the Year and an All-Star in 1982, disclosed that he had spent time in rehab. He later relapsed and was suspended for the entire 1984 season. Drug and alcohol abuse would dog the talented Howe his entire career. He died in April of 2006 in a car crash. The autopsy showed traces of meth in his system.

MLB Photos Archive
Steve Howe
Photo by MLB via Getty Images

The Dodgers had valiantly tried to save Howe. In 1979, Newcombe had convinced Dodger owner Peter O’Malley that star pitcher Bob Welch was drinking himself to death. The Dodgers intervened and sent Welch to rehab. Newcombe and O’Malley then set out to save Howe but were unsuccessful.

In the summer of 1983, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lonnie Smith sought treatment at the Hyland Center in St. Louis for his cocaine use. Smith played in Kansas City from 1985 to 1987 and helped the Royals win their first World Series. After being released by the Royals following the 1987 season, Smith had trouble finding a new team. He thought he had been blackballed by Royal GM John Schuerholz and fueled by depression and cocaine, bought a handgun, and considered murdering Schuerholz.

After the 1983 season ended the Atlanta Braves brass confronted two of their players, Steve Bedrosian and Claudell Washington, about their substance abuse. Both soon sought treatment for their cocaine problem.

In August of 1982, a federal probe looking into cocaine trafficking kicked off in Dodge City, Kansas of all places. There’s not much in Dodge, other than Boot Hill and tumbleweeds. And at that time, evidently cocaine. By 1983, a KBI agent named Joaquin Padilla, was investigating a Dodge City man named Dennis Young on suspicion of cocaine trafficking. Padilla was able to buy some coke from Young, who boasted about going to some Royals games and partying with Vida Blue, Willie Wilson, and Willie Aikens. This tidbit turned the feds’ attention to Overland Park and the home of one Mark Liebl. Liebl was a baseball fan and a Dodge City native. He had gone through a recent divorce and was lonely and depressed when he started recreationally using cocaine. In April of 1982, a friend brought Vida Blue to his home. The three spent the night snorting blow and a friendship was formed.

As the summer wore on, Blue would frequently bring other players to Liebl’s home to procure coke. It was just Royals players at first, but later spread to players from other teams. They partied in what Liebl called his “Cooperstown room” which was decorated in baseball memorabilia. Orders for more coke were often placed from phones in the Royals clubhouse and deliveries were often made to the stadium.

Liebl was more of a party friend than a drug dealer. He had a simple rule: any coke used in his house was free. Anything that went out the door had to be paid for, typically at $80 per gram. In later testimony, Liebl stated he lost “thousands of dollars, his business, and two homes” he owned due to his drug habit.

In June of 1982, Blue, called Liebl from Royals Stadium. He asked Liebl to bring some coke to the stadium for “himself, Wilson and Aikens”. After the game, Blue suggested that Liebl go on the road with the team, so he did. The first stop was Anaheim, where Blue had left him tickets at will call for the June 25 game. After the game, Liebl, Blue, Wilson and Jerry Martin stayed up until nearly 6 a.m. snorting coke. Blue was the starting pitcher that evening and made it through six innings of a Royal loss. The party scene repeated itself again that night with Blue, Wilson and Martin partying until the wee hours with Liebl.

Liebl later accompanied the team on trips to Boston in July and Texas in August. Eventually U.L. Washington and Don Hood joined the party group, according to Liebl. Before long, Liebl was buying four ounces of cocaine each month. There are 28 grams per ounce. Most of this was going to the Royals. The coked-up Royals somehow managed to stay in the pennant race. They finished the season in second place at 90-72, three games back of the California Angels. Would a clean team have won the division?

During Liebl’s summer magical mystery tour, he claimed to have snorted coke with Boston pitchers Dennis Eckersley, Mike Torrez, and Chuck Rainey. When the White Sox came to town, Blue brought over Ron LeFlore and Steve Trout. He also said he snorted coke with members of the Oakland A’s and Minnesota Twins.

Federal authorities, based on the Dodge City intel, began to surveil Liebl’s home and noted that cars with license plates issued to Wilson, Aikens, Washington, and others were frequently at Liebl’s house until early morning hours. Authorities applied for a wiretap, which was approved and installed. Over the next 17 days, several people called Liebl to purchase cocaine, including Wilson, Martin, and Aikens. Wilson called on June 18, attempting to purchase coke for former teammate Al Cowens, then a member of the Seattle Mariners, who happened to be in town for a three-game set. Cowens had a fantastic 1977 season for the Royals, finishing second in the MVP vote. His play slipped a bit in the next two seasons before the Royals shipped him to California in a package deal in which the Royals received back…Willie Aikens. I’d always wondered why the Royals traded Cowens. Did they know something we didn’t?

On June 28, Liebl and his girlfriend were preparing to leave for a Royals game when federal agents bust through his door, guns drawn. Liebl, relieved by the arrest, laughed and said, “You just don’t know how glad I am this thing is finally over.”

After the baseball season ended, federal drug charges were filed against 17 people, including Liebl, his brother John and Dennis Young. Vida Blue, Jerry Martin, Willie Wilson, and Willie Aikens were among those indicted. U.L. Washington and other players suspected of cocaine use were not arrested because they never called Liebl when his phone was tapped.

Mark Liebl was sentenced to six years in prison and served his time at the Fort Worth Correctional Institute. He was released after 2 ½ years served. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn even made a trip to Fort Worth to interview Liebl. Kuhn considered what Liebl said credible. “Oddly enough, Liebl is a real baseball fan. He wanted to make players happy, so he supplied them with drugs. But he was concerned about what was going on. It was a paradoxical thing.” Said Kuhn.

Amanda Meers, an assistant United States Attorney based in Kansas City said that Liebl was not a typical drug dealer. “He’s a nice guy, a kind of Billy Budd type. I don’t mean in the legal sense because there was no question that he was guilty of selling cocaine. I mean in the sense of being naïve.”

Blue was sentenced for cocaine possession. The other three players pled to lesser charges. All four received 90-day prison terms, served 81 days, thus becoming the first active major league players to serve prison time.

Bowie Kuhn then shocked the Royals and the baseball world by suspending the four for the entire 1984 season. The players appealed and had their suspensions reduced to six weeks. Kansas City released Blue on August 5, 1983. Martin and Don Hood were given their release on November 7 and the team traded Aikens to the Toronto Blue Jays in December of 1983 for Jorge Orta. Wilson was the only player retained by the Royals. The Royals eventually parted ways with U.L. Washington, trading him to Montreal in January of 1985.

Next week: The climax