The Commissioner Gets Tough

May 20, 1985
May 20, 1985

Table of Contents
May 20, 1985

The Celtics
Drug Tests
The Angels
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

The Commissioner Gets Tough

Fearful of cocaine's impact on baseball, Peter Ueberroth announces plans for sweeping, mandatory testing

The announcement was calculated, dramatic and instantly controversial. Henceforth, said commissioner Peter Ueberroth, random drug urinalysis will be administered to virtually all baseball personnel, with the notable exception of major league players. Owners, clubhouse attendants, bat boys, secretaries and more than 3,000 minor league players would be tested. Big-leaguers would be excluded for now because mandatory drug testing for them can be implemented only with the consent of the Major League Baseball Players Association. But Ueberroth was counting on public opinion to help persuade players to submit to such testing, and his efforts to whip up support took on the appearance of a holy crusade against illicit drugs.

This is an article from the May 20, 1985 issue Original Layout

"Somebody has to say, 'Enough is enough,' against drugs," Ueberroth said in a commencement address at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles last Saturday, four days after revealing his plan. "Baseball's going to accomplish this. It's a little tiny segment of society. We're going to remove drugs and be an example."

In a speech that brought cheering students to their feet, Ueberroth, who received the school's honorary Doctor of Public Service degree, said he was concerned with 1) "the health of the very few people in baseball that have problems," 2) the reputations of players who serve as idols to young people and 3) the danger that gamblers could use players hooked on drugs to fix games.

Later, in a private interview, Ueberroth elaborated on the last point, saying that he feared "a Tulane-type [allegations of point-shaving] case, where you can control a person through drugs.... The commissioner's office was established because of the Black Sox gambling problem. Illegal drugs provide a far better opportunity for gambling to find its way into sports than anything."

By conjuring up two of the darkest moments in sports, one ancient and one all too recent, the commissioner was fueling the public fire and adding to the pressure he was putting on the players. He even enlisted the aid of the Major League Umpire's Association, which also had veto power over any mandatory testing proposal but owed the commissioner a debt of gratitude for settling its '84 postseason strike. Richie Phillips, the general counsel for the union, citing the "mutual trust and goodwill" between himself and Ueberroth, said the umpires had agreed to be tested.

But not everyone in baseball was cheering. Ueberroth didn't consult with the Players Association before announcing his plans, and Donald Fehr, the association's acting executive director, accused him of "grandstanding." Although a few players backed mandatory testing—"Let's do it and get the damn drug addicts out of the game," said John Wockenfuss of the Phillies—a great many others strongly objected. Said Boston pitcher Bob Stanley, "I don't take drugs, and I don't believe I have to piss in a bottle to prove I don't." Even the Braves' Dale Murphy, who doesn't so much as drink Coke, demurred at testing. "It's assuming a guy is guilty without knowing," he says. "I understand there's a problem and we have to try and solve it. It's that principle that's hard for me to accept."

Ueberroth says that his drug plan was months in the making but that the timing of its announcement was affected, in part, by two developments: the Alan Wiggins case and a continuing grand jury investigation in Pittsburgh involving ballplayers (see box). Wiggins, the San Diego Padres' second baseman, who had done a TV spot for Major League Baseball Productions warning youngsters about the danger of drugs, was suspended for the season by the Padres following a relapse into cocaine dependency. Wiggins, who hit .258 and stole 70 bases for the National League champs last year, was batting .054 with no stolen bases at the time of his brief disappearance. If the Padres should narrowly lose their division, fans will be able to point to games Wiggins might have cost the team early in the year as a factor. That's the sort of link between drug use and on-field results that Ueberroth wants to eliminate.

Then there's Claudell Washington of the Braves, an admitted onetime drug user who was arrested this February for marijuana possession and is awaiting trial...and California's Daryl Sconiers, who dropped out of sight and was treated for substance abuse...and Mike Norris of Oakland, in trouble again after being arrested and charged with driving under the influence for the second time this year.

There is no question that drug use is pervasive in baseball. As if the many players who have admitted drug use in the Pittsburgh case weren't enough. The Milwaukee Sentinel reported last week on a three-year-old investigation in which, the paper said, at least 10 American League players, seven of them still active, were named as having been drug customers. No matter that many young men with high incomes in other fields also use cocaine. The fact is that a significant number of big league players have been implicated, and one can only guess at the number who use coke but haven't been caught.

But none of that justified Ueberroth's action in the eyes of the Players Association, which thought it had taken a major step in dealing with the drug problem a year ago. Under the joint player-owner agreement ratified last June 21, mandatory testing was rejected at the union's insistence. Instead, a club can confront a player if it suspects drug abuse. If he balks, a three-doctor panel determines whether he should undergo testing and, if necessary, treatment.

Ueberroth's end run around the joint drug program clearly antagonized the Players Association, which is in the process of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the club owners. If the owners try to put mandatory drug-testing on the bargaining table, it could become a strike issue. At the least, says Fehr, Ueberroth's action "has the potential to disrupt negotiations." Ueberroth may be gambling that the union wouldn't dare strike over his testing plan and offend a public that feels that "something must be done" about drug use by athletes.

For their part, club executives, almost to a man, fell in line with the commissioner. "I think we need a testing mechanism," said John Schuerholz, general manager of the Royals, a team deeply affected in the past by player drug use. Some owners even joked about being tested. "They might find a little vodka in me, but that's about all," said Philadelphia president Bill Giles.

But Ueberroth's own house was divided. An employee of the Major League Baseball Promotion Corporation said, "Peter's seriously underestimating our intelligence if he thinks we're going to blindly follow along. Any thinking person would object to being tested." The promotion personnel were briefed by baseball's general counsel, Ed Durso, last Thursday, and the same employee said, "What really struck me was his total lack of preparation. One of us asked him what would happen if we refused to take the test, and he said, 'I don't know.' "

Ueberroth seemed to be shooting from the hip. He said he would announce more details on May 20, but did disclose that employees will submit samples "twice, maybe three times a year. It will be random testing." Test results, he said, would be kept in strictest confidence and would be used to help rather than punish those with drug problems. Which drugs are the targets? "Illegal drugs, obviously cocaine, heroin, marijuana and other types of substances," said Ueberroth. He was not sure about amphetamines and had no plans to test for anabolic steroids, arguing that "it is not an illegal substance." But athletes often obtain steroids on the black market and by not testing for them, Ueberroth seemingly contradicts his concern for the health of baseball people.

Ueberroth obviously has great confidence in his public relations instincts. His decision to preempt whatever news may come out of Pittsburgh by imposing blanket testing on all non-playing personnel was undeniably shrewd. For years critics have accused sports czars of hypocrisy: If they're so concerned about drug use, why don't they treat all their employees and not just athletes? With one deft stroke, Ueberroth has effectively defused that argument.

A growing number of American companies are administering mandatory drug tests on their employees, and this no doubt has helped embolden Ueberroth to do the same. "Some people think a urine test is dehumanizing," he said, addressing the questions of civil liberties. "But it's like the metal-detector test at airports."

But just because more and more testing of all kinds is going on doesn't mean it's necessarily right—or that it's always efficacious. Ueberroth treats the details of his testing plan as mere incidentals, to be filled in later, but those details will be critical in determining how fair and useful testing will be. Still, there's little question that such testing would be at least a partial deterrent to drug use.

Amid all the pomp and circumstance that greeted Ueberroth's commencement of a hard line on drugs, it came to light last week that he and his good friend, producer David Wolper, have discussed a possible appearance by the commissioner in a TV miniseries based on John Jakes's Civil War saga, North and South. Ueberroth's role would be that of one General Abner Doubleday.

The commissioner should be very adept at playing a man who tries to perfect the game of baseball.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAFehr denounced the test plan as "grandstanding."PHOTORICHARD MACKSONUeberroth told Loyola students, "We're going to remove drugs and be an example."PHOTOJERRY WACHTERThe Padres must suffer without Wiggins, who was again brought to his knees by cocaine.