The arrest of Miguel Cabrera on a DUI charge this past week brings to the forefront a mostly-ignored issue in the MLB. Alcohol and drugs (non-performance enhancing types) are prevalent in baseball, but this issue is mostly overlooked. Two of the games’ biggest stars have been impacted by these substances over the past several years and now is the time to implement a policy in the MLB to get players help when they are faced with these very real issues. Josh Hamilton was able to overcome his cocaine and crack addiction to now be one of the best hitters in baseball, but it wasn’t easy and he will never be ‘cured’. Cabrera spent 3-months undergoing alcohol abuse treatment at the end of 2009 and into 2010, but now faces a relapse and more issues related to his disease. Many fans are outraged and want him suspended, but what issue does a suspension solve? (more after the jump)
At the heart of addiction is the knowledge that it is a serious, life-long disease. It doesn’t matter how many days or months or years a person has been clean from drugs or alcohol, they are still an addict and can relapse and fall into the trap in the blink of an eye. Being in the spotlight as a top-tier professional athlete has plenty of perks, but it also has just as many, if not more, potential negative paths a player can travel down. The expectation and pressure is high and the money is flowing, with opportunities for legal and illegal activity rampant, especially on the road. For those who think alcohol and drug use was a thing of the past, think again. As recently as 2007, most clubhouses had no restrictions on alcohol in the clubhouse, before, during, and after games.
As sad as it is to say, it took death to ‘motivate teams’ to focus on player’s health and safety surrounding addiction. St. Louis Cardinal’s pitcher Josh Hancock was killed in a drunk-driving accident in May of 2007. Tony LaRussa had become aware of Hancock’s problem shortly before the accident and made an effort to speak to the 29-year old pitcher about his issue. LaRussa himself was arrested for driving drunk that previous Spring Training, so he took proactive steps in helping Hancock, but it was too late. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough and Hancock didn’t get treatment in time to save his life. After that point, many teams began banning alcohol in clubhouses around the league, but if you are addicted to a substance, you will find a way to get it, banned or not.
My concern with addiction roots back to the MLB. As a whole, there is no consequence from the MLB when a player is arrested for a DUI or when there is the discovery of an addiction. About 5 years ago, ESPN.com’s Keith Law (former Toronto Blue Jays assistant to the GM) wrote an essay about this very issue in baseball. He referred to it as the game’s historic unwillingness to treat alcohol abuse and explained a situation when he was with the Blue Jays, where a pitcher was offered in a trade and had been pulled over several times for drunk driving. The team was willing to overlook off-field issues as long as the player can still perform on the field on a daily basis. The feeling is that what players do in their personal life is not the club’s issue, as long as it doesn’t affect their performance.
After the death of Hancock, teams didn’t want to seem insensitive, so they put a small band aid on the issue and banned alcohol in the clubhouse. Will that solve any issues? No. It makes teams seem like they care, but their concern ends there. There is no consequence for being arrested for a DUI and there is no process to help treat a player that has a known addiction. That needs to change, now.
Ultimately, no person can help another person get sober, and remain sober, unless the person with the issue recognizes their problem and is willing to address it. The reason Josh Hamilton is sober and playing at the highest level of the big leagues now is because of the support he had around him, and still has around him. He recognized he had an addiction, got the proper treatment to turn his life around, and even today, needs to surround himself with the right people looking out for his best interests. Addiction does not disappear once rehab is over, nor does it ever go away, so it is imperative that the MLB develops a policy and opportunity to help players recovering from addiction, from when the problem becomes known, until the player retires and beyond.
The old-school style of brushing the issue under the rug needs to stop now. Miguel Cabrera did the right thing and spent time in rehab dealing with his alcoholism last year. If the MLB had been more supportive and proactive about helping Cabrera stay sober, he may not have been in the situation he was in this past week, driving drunk in Florida. I am not placing blame on the MLB for Cabrera’s actions, because that is unfair and frankly, stupid, but I do think the league could have made a much bigger effort in supporting players going through difficult periods in their lives. The MLB and its players are role-models for many young children and by ignoring major life issues, the league is setting a poor-example. The league has drawn a hard line with steroid use, but generally has ignored other life-altering addictions, like alcoholism and drug use.
For the record, I don’t believe a suspension is the correct response after an addition is discovered, but I do believe there needs to be a consequence that is focused on the player’s recovery plan moving forward. Some type of required rehab is crucial, along with a long-term sober plan, that will allow the player and their family/friends to focus on what that person needs going forward. Addiction is bigger than the game of baseball and needs to start with, and focus on, the players personal life and family, not their contract or play on the field. Baseball is an entertainment enterprise, but revenues and TV ratings cannot trump personal safety and health, period.
This issue has been pushed aside for years, because the alcohol industry fuels revenue in the MLB, but now is the time to make a change and take a stand on addiction in the MLB.