The first step to addressing a problem is admitting you have it. After a fourth major league baseball player was charged with DUI in the last month, it may be time for Bud Selig to stand up and say, “I am the commissioner of baseball, and my sport has an alcohol problem”.
Last night, A’s outfielder Coco Crisp was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving, only one week after Miguel Cabrera’s more publicized arrest on the same charge. Earlier in the winter, just before reporting to camp, Indians’ outfielder and former Yankee Austin Kearns as well as Mariners’ infielder Adam Kennedy were also cited for DUI.
Because of his status as a star player, Cabrera’s arrest was covered much more prominently, but the incidents involving Crisp, Kearns and Kennedy aren’t any less serious. What’s more, this isn’t a new problem. Although baseball players have generally managed to avoid making the same kinds of criminal headlines as their NFL and NBA brethren, DUI has been one area in which the sport has run afoul. Other high profile cases like Joba Chamberlain’s arrest in 2008 and Tony LaRussa’s incident in 2007 are further examples of a problem that is gradually getting out of control.
Baseball shouldn’t need a special reason to be vigilant regarding drunk driving. Still, you’d expect the sport to be particularly sensitive to the problem after suffering the April 9, 2009 tragedy that claimed the life of Angels’ pitcher Nick Adenhart. Although Adenhart wasn’t driving under the influence, his young life and promising career were ended by someone who was. As bad as the frequent arrests have been for baseball, nothing could be worse than an incident in which an active major league player tragically causes either his own death, or the death of others.
Alcohol has long been a problem in baseball. Many of the stories that we all enjoy about the old timers were usually fermented under its influence. Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four”, for example, is full of such examples of these colorful escapades. Of course, nowadays we know these kinds of stories aren’t really funny, especially because the modern ballplayer isn’t simply stumbling back to a hotel or causing havoc on a train. What makes baseball’s current predicament even more serious is players are taking the clubhouse culture of excessive drinking and bringing with them behind the wheel of a car. This winter alone, baseball has been lucky on four occasions that one of its players didn’t cause a tragedy. The sport can’t afford to wait until one finally occurs.
So, once Bud Selig admits to the problem, what can he do? For starters, when the new CBA comes up, the owners should forget about trying to extend the drug treatment program to include irrelevant substances like HGH, and instead get the players to agree to more strict punishments for driving under the influence. If players want to drink, fine. But getting in a car afterwards should not be tolerated, and any infraction should come with a severe penalty.
The most important step that Selig can take is to redouble baseball’s efforts to educate players about the dangers of alcohol as well as the legal ramifications of driving under the influence. Even though the sport already has a program in place to deal with alcohol-related issues, something clearly isn’t working. Now is the time to reexamine these efforts and make them even stronger. What’s more, baseball must attack the part of its culture that is so intimately integrated with alcohol, even if it means taking a hit in the pocketbook. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so whether baseball responds to its symptoms could go a long way toward determining just how epidemic this problem becomes. In the past, abuse of drugs and steroids were largely ignored until they mushroomed out of control. It would be nice to see baseball get out in front of this problem before a tragedy occurs.
I abused my right to be a professional baseball player. I abused my right to be a pioneer. I just plain overdid it and nearly lost everything I had because of alcohol”. – Don Newcombe, quoted by AP, May 20, 1976
In a recent interview on MLB radio, former Dodgers’ pitcher Don Newcombe talked about his plans to give a talk to the organization’s players about the dangers of alcohol abuse. Newcombe should know something about the topic. By his own admission, the big righty allowed alcohol to not only destroy his career, but almost his life. Since going sober in 1967, Newcombe has helped countless players deal with their own addiction. Maybe it’s time for Newcombe to share his talk with the rest of the sport?