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Baseball’s cocaine blues, Part two

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The climax.

Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees

See part one of the series on cocaine in baseball here.

Over the next two years, more dominos fell. In the spring of 1984, Atlanta pitcher Pascual Perez was convicted in the Dominican Republic of cocaine possession, spent three months in a Dominican prison, and was suspended from baseball until May 15. Perez was a colorful personality and sometimes effective pitcher, who earned the name “Perimeter Pascual” for the time in 1982 that he missed a start for the Braves because he got lost on Atlanta’s 285 Beltway, circling the city four times in a vain effort to find Fulton County Stadium. He eventually ran out of gas and made it to the park ten minutes late.

Also in the spring of 1984, Pirate reliever Rod Scurry entered rehab at Pittsburgh’s Gateway Rehabilitation Center.

Baseball was soon to have a trial that was more shocking than the Kansas City event. But first, back to Dodge City. I had a close friend who lived in that area in the early 1980s. He later told me that he was buying small amounts of cocaine for personal use. Eventually, the main seller, the “big guy”, wanted to meet him. Most likely to see if he was legit or if he was a narc. My friend drove to Greensburg, Kansas, 45 miles east of Dodge City to meet the main dealer. The dealer had a business in Greensburg, which was basically a front for his drug trade.

Greensburg is a pleasant burg of about 1,500 people. I’d been through there dozens of times on my way to see my grandmother. I used to stop at a Tasty Freeze type place on the highway for a burger and a malt every time I went through. Greensburg is home to the largest hand-dug well in the world and in May of 2007 was nearly wiped off the map by an F5 tornado. The town has since been rebuilt. In 1982, Greensburg was the last place on earth you’d expect to find a big-time coke dealer.

According to my friend, the dealer also kept a second residence in Hutchinson. This fortified dwelling was where he kept his nice sports cars in a house filled with fine leather furniture. The dealer convinced my friend to sell coke to his friends, which would allow him to get his for “free”. Of course, nothing in life is free. I can understand why the dealer was recruiting my friend to sell. He had a huge personality that drew people to him. He was truly one of those people who could have sold ice to an Eskimo. Selling drugs is the ultimate multi-level marketing scheme. Selling coke is Amway with a bloody nose.

After several meetings, the dealer attempted to give my friend a handgun to use in case he was stopped by the police. At this point, my friend knew he was swimming in deep water with sharks and decided to bow out of the drug trade. He was lucky. He escaped with his life. This particular dealer, as was discovered later, had a habit of knocking off old associates. In the drug trade that’s known as tying up loose ends. The dealer was, years later, shot to death while tying up a loose end. Like the old saying goes, drugs will kill you. One way or another.

The cocaine trade in a small state like Kansas is a small community. I remember another friend once bragging about some coke he’d bought that was from a shipment heading to a famous musician living in Colorado. Like I said, it was a small community. Were Liebl and Young being supplied by the Greensburg dealer? The geographic vicinity and time frame certainly suggest that as a possibility.

Anyway, back to baseball.

In September of 1985, a grand jury was convened in Pittsburgh in what became known as the Pittsburgh Drug Trials. That’s trials. Plural. The trials, which garnered massive media attention, charged seven men for trafficking drugs, primarily to Major League Baseball players. Much like Liebl, none of these men were what you would think of when you think of who a drug dealer is.

The most notable defendant, Curtis Strong, was a clubhouse caterer for the Phillies. One was an HVAC repairman. Another was a bartender. One was the Pittsburgh Pirates mascot. Players who testified were given immunity, a controversial decision at the time. The amount of drugs that the seven trafficked were meager, as far as drug indictments go. The main attraction was the testimony of the players against the seven, who had supplied them with coke. Dale Berra, Lee Lacy, Lee Mazzilli, John Milner, Dave Parker, Rod Scurry, Enos Cabell, Keith Hernandez, Jeffrey Leonard, Tim Raines, and Lonnie Smith all testified. Blue and Aikens, both late of the Royals, also testified. The testimony was salacious. Milner admitted that he bought coke in a bathroom stall at Three Rivers Stadium and talked about getting greenies from Willie Mays and Willie Stargell.

Keith Hernandez stated that he thought up to 40% of players were using coke. Hernandez said that cocaine “was a demon in me” and that he had an almost insatiable desire to have more.

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Keith Hernandez
Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

When the verdicts came down, there was some outcry that rich ballplayers were allowed to walk under immunity, while men of lesser means were on their way to prison.

Strong was given a 12-year prison sentence and was released after serving four. The other six were given sentences from 18 months to 12 years. Kevin Koch, who was the Pirate Parrot and worked as the middleman on many of the coke transactions, lost his job with the team.

After the conclusion of the trials, new baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth suspended seven players for the entire season. Those suspended were Joaquin Andujar, Dale Berra, Enos Cabell, Keith Hernandez, Jeffrey Leonard, Dave Parker, and Lonnie Smith. Those suspensions were forgiven if the players donated 10% of their base salary to drug-abuse programs, submitted to random drug testing, and did 100 hours of drug-related community service.

Four other players, Al Holland, Lee Lacy, Lary Sorenson, and Claudell Washington were suspended for 60 days, or allowed to play if they donated 5% of their salary and did 50 hours of drug-related community service. Ten other players were named and punished with random drug testing for the duration of their careers. Those ten were Dusty Baker, Vida Blue, Gary Matthews, Dickie Noles, Tim Raines, Manny Sarmiento, Daryl Sconiers, Rod Scurry, Derrel Thomas, and Alan Wiggins.

The aftermath

In July 1987, Commissioner Ueberroth declared baseball to be drug-free. Thankfully Twitter didn’t exist, or Ueberroth would have been mercilessly roasted for his impetuousness.

The drug testing itself was fairly toothless. It said a team may not require unannounced urine tests of its players. It may, however, ask for tests of players suspected of drug use. General managers could also consult a “drug list” of players suspected of drug use, made available from the commissioner’s office, before making any trades.

In an interview with Tom Boswell in September of 1985, Whitey Herzog stated that “I’ll always be convinced that cocaine cost us a World Series with the Royals”. He also guessed that his early Cardinals teams had eleven players who were heavy users. Herzog said that “it got so bad that when we went to Montreal, which was where they all seemed to get it, I had to have us fly in on the day of the game. That way, I knew we’d play decent for one night, even though the rest of the trip might be a lost cause.”

Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees
Willie Wilson
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

In Kansas City, Willie Wilson returned to action on May 16, 1984 in a game at Comiskey Park. He was greeted with a banner that said “Willie, Coke is it”. Wilson laughed about the banner, drew a walk, and stole second. Moments later, a pickoff throw caromed into center field as Wilson motored home. He was mobbed by his teammates in a joyous dugout.

Wilson played 15 years in Kansas City before ending his career with two years in Oakland and two more with the Cubs. When Wilson retired after the 1994 season, he fell back into addiction. In the late 1990s he checked himself into the Shawnee Mission Medical Center for help. Now clean and sober, he’s partnered with First Call, a drug addiction treatment center in Kansas City. He helps sponsor an annual golf outing to raise funds for First Call. Says Wilson, “we’re raising money and awareness. The real winners today are the ones who are going to receive help against their addictions. Nothing can beat that.” Wilson, one of the all-time greats in Kansas City, was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 2000.

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Willie Aikens
Photo by John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The road back for Willie Aikens was more difficult. When Aikens began getting less playing time in 1983, he clashed with manager Dick Howser. After Kansas City shipped him to Toronto, Aikens spent 105 mostly unproductive games with the Jays before being released, his baseball career seemingly over at the age of 30. Unable to find a team in the states, he played in Mexico until 1991.

After baseball ended, he spiraled into a drug-fueled despair. Aikens testified to the House Judiciary Committee in May of 2009 about the unfairness of federal cocaine sentencing. The testimony is both startling and sad. Aikens talked about using cocaine after each game of the 1980 World Series. In that series, he became the first player in league history to hit two home runs in a game in two separate games. He talked about blowing over $300,000 on cocaine through the years. He spoke of how a female undercover officer of the Kansas City police department sought him out and asked to buy seven grams of powder cocaine from him and how the officer kept coming back for more purchases until the total was more than 50 grams. After the first powder buy, the officer requested to purchase crack from Aikens.

And there’s the rub. Anything over 50 grams is turned over to federal authorities and subjected Aikens to minimum mandatory sentencing. It wasn’t enough to bust the poor guy after the first or second buy, they kept at him until he sold himself into a long sentence. I understand crime and punishment. I understand personal responsibility. Nobody put a gun to Aikens’s head and forced him to use or sell cocaine. Despite that, something seems wrong about continually exploiting a person until they unwittingly back themselves into a harsh prison term.

Aikens needed help. Instead, he got convicted of selling crack and an additional charge of firearm possession and served 15 years in prison. Then there’s the disparity in sentencing. Had Aikens sold a similar amount of powder cocaine, his sentence most likely would have been around two and a half years. It smells like a bait and switch to me, with the undercover first requesting powder, then switching to crack. Aikens was paroled in 2008. After release, Aikens said, “I was a tremendous junkie. When you are in a state of mind like that, you don’t see yourself like that. You’re in denial. You don’t see that you’ve become selfish, and you only think about yourself.”

After release, Aikens worked in road construction, a job set up by former teammate Hal McRae. In November of 2008 he penned a heartfelt apology to the Royals and their fans that ran in the Kansas City Star. In February of 2011, the Royals hired Aikens as one of their minor league hitting coaches.

Of the players involved, Ferguson Jenkins and Tim Raines were eventually named to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Keith Hernandez and Dave Parker, despite solid careers, have fallen short of enshrinement. Others were not as lucky. Porter, Wiggins, Scurry, and Howe all succumbed to their addictions. Pascual Perez was murdered in 2012 in his native Dominican Republic. Bob Welch died in 2014 from injuries received in a fall in his home. Joaquin Andujar died in September of 2015 from complications of diabetes. Lary Sorensen was arrested seven times for drunken driving and served two separate stints in prison. He most recently was doing radio work for Wake Forest University.

Athletes, especially baseball players, have always had large appetites. Babe Ruth was legendary for drinking two cases of beer and consuming a dozen hot dogs in a day. His sexual appetites were of legendary status as well. Baseball players have long been known as heavy drinkers. The New York Yankees won six World Series titles in the 1950s with what can charitably be called a who’s who of hard-drinking, hard-living alcoholic ballplayers.

The problem of alcohol and cocaine is not just a baseball problem. It’s a societal problem. Cocaine use was rampant in the 1970s in nearly all facets of life, from the small towns to the cities. I can’t help but laugh at the parallels between the cocaine era and the steroid era of baseball. The commissioner acts totally surprised and shocked. He calls drugs the game’s biggest problem even though he and the owners most likely knew what was going on the entire time. The media pontificates about the effect on the game. The union, under pressure, finally agrees to drug testing. Sounds familiar, right? There are some differences. Cocaine has never been considered a performance-enhancing drug. Steroids were. For steroid users, those 20-30 balls that used to die on the warning track every summer, were now flying out of the park. It allowed pitchers to maintain velocity well into their late 30’s and early 40’s. Steroids enhanced careers. Cocaine killed careers.

And it continues to kill. Athletes and regular Joes succumb to overdoses every year. Understand, these are not bad people, they just have a bad habit. For an athlete, there is the pressure of performance. One bad week and another player might take your job. There’s the pressure of performing in front of large crowds, which can be adoring or hostile. There’s the endless, mind-numbing travel of one city and hotel room after another and the loneliness that can go with it. More recently, drugs like Percocet and Oxycontin have been used to help an athlete control pain. Often these drugs, sometimes given to the athlete by the team, lead to crushing addictions. I’ve been down that road before and I can understand how an addiction can take hold. I have no answers, only sadness every time another person is lost.

For Royal fans, it leaves us with the question of what might have been during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Did drug use, as opined by Herzog, rob the franchise of one or more World Series titles?

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, get help. Call the National Drug Helpline at 1-844-289-0879. The line is open 24/7.