The two weeks of testimony last September were riveting, revealing and shocking. A black eye to baseball.
But while most bruises heal, this one still festers.
It has been a year since the fall pennant races were sideswiped by baseball’s biggest scandal since the 1919 Black Sox disgraced the sport: The Pittsburgh cocaine trials.
It has been a year since some of baseball’s biggest names were linked to drugs during the trial of a former Philadelphia Phillies clubhouse chef; a year since stars like Keith Hernandez and Dave Parker confessed inside a packed courtroom to having had cocaine problems.
Though it took the deaths of Maryland basketball star Len Bias and the Cleveland Browns’ Don Rogers to underscore how deadly drugs can be, it was in Pittsburgh that the problem first caught the public’s attention.
“The trials here really illustrated to the country, more than any other drug case, that there is a drug problem in this society and that it is serious, widespread,” said J. Alan (Jerry) Johnson, the Pittsburgh-based U.S. attorney whose investigation led to the indictment and prosecution of seven Pennsylvania men on various cocaine charges.
“Events subsequent to the trials have borne out how big a problem it is,” Johnson said. “I don’t take credit for it. . . . but I believe the baseball case got it started, this national awareness that there is a problem.
“Every time I see a TV show on cocaine, and there have been a lot of them recently, there is a reference to the Pittsburgh baseball case. Certain cases can expose serious problems in society, and I believe that’s what this case did,” he said.
No major league players were indicted by the federal grand jury that brought charges against Phillies caterer Curtis Strong and six others. The seven current or former players who testified at Strong’s trial--Hernandez, Parker, Jeffrey Leonard, John Milner, Dale Berra, Lonnie Smith, Enos Cabell--were given immunity from prosecution.
Hernandez estimated that during “the romance years” between baseball and cocaine, nearly 250 players might have used the drug, which he called “the devil on this earth.”
Parker, in testimony that would later subject him to a breach-of-contract suit by the Pittsburgh Pirates, described how years of cocaine use caused his once-spectacular play to deteriorate.
“I was going downhill,” Parker said.
Johnson was criticized for allowing the highly paid players to go free while men of lesser means, such as Strong--described by his attorney, Adam O. Renfroe, as being a “poor, pitiful baseball junkie"--went to jail.
“I didn’t want to have to give baseball players immunity, believe me, but the alternative was to do nothing,” Johnson said.
The players, however, did not go unpunished.
Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth conditionally suspended for a year the six active players (all but Milner) who testified, as well as Oakland A’s pitcher Joaquin Andujar. Ueberroth lifted the suspensions when the players contributed 10% of their 1986 salaries to drug programs and agreed to undergo drug testing for the rest of their careers.
Four other players were given 60-day suspensions that were lifted when they donated 5% of their salaries to drug programs. Ten other players named in testimony are required to undergo drug testing for the rest of their careers.
For Hernandez and Parker, this season may prove to be one of their best. Both are mentioned as most valuable player candidates, with Hernandez batting over .300 and leading the Mets to the National League East championship and Parker driving in more than 100 runs as Cincinnati made a second-half surge in the NL West.
Strong was convicted on 11 of 15 drug distribution charges and drew a 12-year prison term. The other six men indicted by the grand jury were either convicted or pleaded guilty to various charges and drew jail terms ranging from two to 12 years. All are in prison.
Ironically, they will be joined by Renfroe, the defense attorney whose courtroom histrionics elicited most of the ballplayers’ testimony that proved most damaging to baseball.
Renfroe, 37, of Philadelphia, was sentenced in July to five years in prison and three years’ probation on bribery and obstruction of justice charges. He has since admitted to having a 10-year cocaine habit and to sometimes receiving the drug without charge from clients charged with drug offenses.
“I certainly hope he is able to come to grips with his problem, which again goes to show how widespread the cocaine problem is,” Johnson said.
Baseball has been free of drug scandals this season, and Ueberroth has declared that “baseball’s drug problem is over.”
“I believe baseball is going to be the first sport to be free of drugs,” he said. “The players have had enough of it.”
But since there is no drug-testing plan, baseball executives have said Ueberroth’s statements are premature. Tom Reich, an agent who represents about 90 players, said that even with testing, there will be “a few hard-core addicts for whom there is never a solution.”
Ueberroth tried to implement mandatory drug testing this season, but his plan was overturned by an arbitrator on appeal from the players’ association. “The (players and owners) are still not near a deal and it makes me sick,” Reich said.
He also said baseball’s cocaine miseries may not be over.
The Pirates, whose clubhouse was the scene of some of the drug deals that led to the trials, filed a civil suit last April in an attempt to stop payment of $5.3 million owed Parker in deferred compensation.
The Pirates claim Parker’s failure to disclose his “improper, illegal and heavy use of cocaine” fraudulently induced the team’s former ownership into entering into a five-year contract worth about $7.5 million.
It may be a year or more before the case comes to trial, but if it does, “It will make last year’s nightmare look like a marble shoot,” Reich said.
“The case will involve the history of cocaine in baseball over the last 10 years in a public forum,” he said. “And that history is fairly extensive.”