This wake-up call came too late
If only these words had been said in March, when the news was an arrest, not a crash, a funeral and a toxicology report:
“I think it’s probably a wake-up call to everybody,” St. Louis Cardinals General Manager Walt Jocketty said at a news conference Friday. “The one thing they have to understand is they’re not invincible.”
It shouldn’t have taken the death of pitcher Josh Hancock a week ago for the Cardinals and their fans to realize the dangers of drinking and driving.
The thing is, the Cardinals had their wake-up call and they ignored it. They had the lesson drawn on the blackboard and they didn’t learn from it. They had a chance to address one of the underplayed dangers in our country, and instead they unwittingly contributed to our culture’s casual attitude toward driving under the influence.
In March, Manager Tony La Russa was arrested and jailed overnight on suspicion of drunk driving.
How did Cardinal Nation react?
At the next spring training game, the fans gave La Russa a standing ovation.
The team released a statement in which Jocketty said, “We take these matters very seriously.”
But not seriously enough to punish La Russa. There was no suspension or any other disciplinary action announced.
The Cardinals also apologized “for any embarrassment and/or distraction this reported occurrence has created towards the team and its loyal fans.”
How about apologizing for any endangerment to anyone who happened to be driving in La Russa’s vicinity in Jupiter, Fla., in the early hours of March 22? La Russa, whose blood alcohol content tested at .093 -- above the Florida limit of .08 -- was found asleep at the wheel at an intersection, his foot on the brake. What if his foot had slipped onto the gas pedal and his car ran through a red light?
On the comments pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch website, a few people called for La Russa to be punished or to step down if convicted.
But they were vastly outnumbered by postings such as these:
“Big freaking deal.”
“It really is his own business. Why should we be concerned?”
“Get over it and lets [sic] get a new baseball season started and let Tony have his privacy.”
“Honestly, who cares? A little drunk-driving, woo hoo. La Russa’s a big boy, he didn’t hurt anyone.”
I wonder if these people would have felt the same way if La Russa shot a gun at a crowd and no one got hit. Because any time an intoxicated person gets behind the wheel it’s just like holding a loaded revolver and alternating between Russian roulette and firing random shots out the window.
In a typical year in the United States, the number of fatalities from drunk drivers and homicides is just about even. We don’t like to think of ourselves as potential murderers, but we are every time we go out drinking and get behind the wheel.
Now we have the example of Hancock, who was driving with a blood-alcohol content almost twice the legal limit, and the only good part of this sad story is that he didn’t kill anyone else when he crashed into a tow truck.
Will this be enough to serve as a cautionary tale to athletes or anyone else?
The Cardinals say the risk of driving drunk is addressed during the annual presentations by Major League Baseball during spring training. And La Russa had just met with Hancock to address concerns about Hancock’s behavior when Hancock was late to a game after being out all night.
“I did have a very serious heart-to-heart with Josh on Thursday,” La Russa said at the news conference. “Here it is Saturday [night], he’s still drinking, and crashing. Maybe I could do a better job in my conversations, but I pulled out all the stops.”
The problem is, no words from La Russa or the Cardinals could carry any weight as long as their actions didn’t back them up. La Russa drove while drunk, and nothing came of it from the Cardinals (or, for that matter, the commissioner’s office).
Perhaps Hancock’s drinking issues were so deeply ingrained that no amount of examples the Cardinals set could have helped him. But they can’t say they were completely proactive in this case.
In the wake of the reports following the crash that Hancock was drunk, the Cardinals have banned alcohol from the home clubhouse and from team flights back to St. Louis. It’s a way of acknowledging the organization has responsibility and can set an example, but it doesn’t completely address the issue.
Hancock and La Russa weren’t coming from the stadium or the airport when they got drunk. It’s about a mind-set, and I’m not sure that mind-set is completely changed.
On Friday, La Russa was asked how he was dealing with the multitude of issues facing the Cardinals, including his own arrest.
La Russa said he was worried about Hancock’s family, as well as other members of the Cardinals organization who had lost parents recently.
“My problem in Florida,” and here he shrugged his shoulders, “is way down the list. It doesn’t affect how I concern myself with those things.”
If a drunk-driving arrest is still treated with a shrug, I’m afraid we haven’t seen the last alcohol-related traffic fatality in baseball.
J.A. Adande can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.