THE COCAINE CRISIS: BASEBALL OR SLEAZEBALL?
The Mets' Keith Hernandez took the stand in the case of the United States of America v. Strong last week and admitted he had used cocaine. It was a hot, humid Friday morning in Pittsburgh, and Hernandez looked uncomfortable as he told of waking up with a nosebleed, his body shaking. "It's the devil on this earth," said Hernandez of cocaine.
His was dramatic but not unusual testimony. Although the prosecution had emphasized that alleged cocaine-dealer Curtis Strong, one of seven men indicted for selling cocaine to players, and not baseball was on trial, that was only literally true. With each new witness, the roster of players who admitted using or were alleged to have used cocaine grew: Hernandez, Joaquin Andujar, Lonnie Smith, Enos Cabell, Dave Parker, Jeff Leonard, Lary Sorensen, Al Holland, Dickie Noles, Gary Matthews, Dick Davis, J.R. Richard, Bernie Carbo, Dale Berra, Rod Scurry, John Milner....
The list will grow longer. The FBI has information that some players brought cocaine home from the Venezuelan winter league in their fielders' mitts, and the prosecutors in the Strong case claim that one big leaguer spent more than $100,000 on drugs in a single year. Kansas City's Smith testified that he bought cocaine for Andujar and Hernandez when they were Cardinal teammates and that he received cocaine through the U.S. mail. The list of crimes possibly committed by major-leaguers includes possession, use, smuggling, illegal transport and distribution of cocaine. While the players cooperating with the Pittsburgh investigation have been granted immunity from prosecution, they could face punishment by baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth. In 1983 NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended Cincinnati Bengals Ross Browner and Pete Johnson for four games after they had testified under immunity regarding drug purchases.
What has emerged from the Pittsburgh trial is a pattern of what Smith called "sleazeball" behavior. He himself once snorted a quarter-ounce of coke in one night and was too strung out to play the next day. Others did play under the influence of drugs. Players bought cocaine in hotel rooms, in elevators, in saloons, in a bathroom at Three Rivers Stadium. Some used their friends; Hernandez admits he sent Smith to buy his cocaine in 1982 because, "I didn't want to take any chances."
Baseball's drug culture grew because people looked the other way, or lied about its existence. Only four months ago Hernandez denied "any involvement in cocaine, ever," and in 1984 he threatened to sue Kenneth Moffett, former executive director of the Players Association, when Moffett implied that Hernandez was involved in an FBI investigation of drug use by baseball players.
Hernandez testified earlier in secret grand jury hearings that he thought 40% of the players in the majors were using cocaine in 1980. If his estimate was correct, that meant an average of 10 users per team or 260 in both leagues, more than 10 times the number whose use of cocaine has now been made public. How many are still on cocaine? Hernandez said he thought drug use has declined since four Kansas City players—Willie Wilson, Jerry Martin, Willie Aikens and Vida Blue—were sentenced to jail in 1983 on cocaine charges. Yet it would be naive to believe that the number of cocaine users (not to mention those who habitually pop amphetamines) has diminished to the point where the problem is no longer serious.
Can a player deeply involved in cocaine take himself off the drug? Not easily. Hernandez said it took him 2½ years and that he did it only after he was shaken by the sight of Smith so "overloaded" that he was unable to play. Smith voluntarily entered a rehabilitation center in 1983.
Clearly, something has to be done, and Ueberroth and the Players Association must do it. Objections have been made to the idea of mandatory urinalysis. It's not yet foolproof, the arguments go; it could yield erroneous results; it's a violation of the players' civil rights. But testing, with adequate safeguards to protect rights and privacy, seems a step in the right direction. Combined with a rehabilitation program like that used in the National Basketball Association (users who come forward are helped without penalty; second offenders are helped but lose pay; third offenders are summarily fired) and perhaps some harsh Rozelle-like suspensions, testing could help rescue baseball and its players from a sick situation. The integrity of the game is at stake.
THE GLITZ OPEN
Senior writer Frank Deford saw things he didn't like while covering American tennis's biggest show (page 26). His report:
When the U.S. Open moved from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadow in 1978, the new center was very much the "county fair" that its founder, Slew Hester, then the president of the U.S. Tennis Association, had envisaged. It was a wonderful reflection of romantic America, brash and raucous, bursting its buttons, spontaneous and generous—even when it slipped into excess and vulgarity. With each succeeding year, though, the natural has been replaced by the freeze-dried, the Americana by the American dollar, until the Open bids fair to become little more than Manhattan's largest corporate dog-and-pony show. To the USTA, any display of tradition is sissy. Glitz is good. Expediency is excellent.
A large part of the problem is that the USTA has a revolving-door presidency; each CEO holds authority for only two years. This policy encourages short-timers in blazers to rush in and put a new brand on the USTA—and the Open—every 24 months.
The list of casualties from this year's new order is especially alarming. The longtime head of ball boys and girls, Pat Rooney, was let go. So was Ted Tinling, the grand maven of tennis and a protocol officer at all other Grand Slam events. The charming practice of having a special past champions' box in a corner of the stadium was done away with; where former champions once gathered in honor, they were just given seats. And the men's doubles competition for real old-timers, a sort of equivalent to baseball's Old-Timers' Day, was eliminated. So much for tradition.
Paid attendance hit 400,000, but the fans got shabby treatment. The night matches were a competitive disgrace, with big names meeting nobodies in a succession of 6-1, 6-2, 6-0 clobberings. Keeping track of the goings-on was particularly difficult. The U.S. Open remains the only Grand Slam tournament that has no scoreboards outside the show courts to advise fans of the progress of matches in the stadium, and TV monitors set up to replace the excellent old system of handregistered results were impossible to decipher. Inside the stadium, the old Omega-sponsored scoreboard at court level was replaced by a scoreboard high above the rim of the seats. Trouble was, the lighted scores were almost unreadable in the sun.
According to an Omega representative, a top USTA volunteer didn't care for the clanging sound made by tennis balls hitting the court-level scoreboard.
And nowhere could you get a small Coke or find a water fountain. You could, however, enjoy a small glass of champagne for $3.95. You want ice cream? Two twenty-five a cone. Worst of all, even though the USTA, a nonprofit organization, started off with $8 million in the bank from CBS and corporate sponsors for the Open, it sold most good seats in large blocks to companies (the cheapest ticket series this year went for $300). Thus, the average tennis buff was pretty much shut out unless he knew somebody or wanted to traffic with scalpers. One day, during a tense tiebreaker, I actually heard a guy named Stan close a deal with a guy named Ted over a portable telephone from his court-side seat. Just call it the Write-off Open.
SEE YOU LATER, PREVARICATOR
As a fourth-string nose guard for the University of Arizona, Pat Ahern doesn't get a lot of ink for his football exploits, but there was some interest in his summer job—wrestling alligators. That is, until the story was revealed as a crock.
Ahern jokingly filled out a questionnaire with that employment tidbit for the Wildcats' sports information department, thinking no one would pursue a walk-on for a story. But The Arizona Daily Star did, and Ahern described how he had supposedly stumbled into the job while visiting his grandfather near Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He claimed to have been instructed to taunt the creature with lines such as, "I'm going to turn you into a belt." Part of the danger, he deadpanned, was "if you got whacked in the back with his tail, it would be like getting hit with a big sword."
After the story was revealed to be a hoax a day later, Ahern issued a statement of apology to the reporter and his readers. He said the tale was "totally false with one exception: I do have a grandfather in Florida."
NOT SO GENTLE BEN
We've all been impressed by athletes who hang in there despite advancing years—Pete Rose, Phil Niekro, George Blanda, Satchel Paige, Sam Snead. Now here's one who puts these relative youngsters to shame. His name is Ben G. Forney; he's a cattle dealer in Pennsylvania, and he plays polo. He took up the sport in 1939 at the age of 35 and has been playing ever since, despite a series of setbacks that would have made a lesser man quit long ago. He broke his leg two years after he began playing the game. At 60 he had a cheekbone smashed in by a polo mallet. At 74 he fractured his left shoulder. Last month he fell from his pony at the end of a match and broke his left hip. Not the least bit daunted, Forney, now 80, figures he'll be back in the saddle before the beginning of November.
THEY SAID IT
•Marty Schottenheimer, Cleveland Browns head coach, denying that he's a workaholic even though he frequently puts in 18 hours a day on the job: "I'm just slow."
•Paul Mirabella, a well-traveled American League pitcher, asked after rejoining the Seattle Mariners whether he felt any resentment for being dropped by the team in the off-season: "I'm never one to bear a grudge. If I did, I'd hate half the teams in the American League."