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Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Baseball needs a backbone regarding DUIs

By Keith Law
Special to Page 2

Approximately 17,000 people die in the United States each year in alcohol-related car crashes.

The number of deaths in the U.S. in 2004 that were a direct result of use of anabolic steroids was … three, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Tony La Russa
Tony La Russa has led the Cardinals to the playoffs in seven of his 12 seasons as manager.
Major League Baseball -- due in no small part to ridiculous meddling from a Congress that decided to take a brief break from taxing us all out of existence -- levies a 50-game suspension on any player who is caught using anabolic steroids or any other performance-enhancing drug. Yet DUI arrests provoke no suspensions -- not even any official response. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had so much to drink last week that he fell asleep at the wheel of his SUV while stopped at a traffic light, so much that he still registered a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit two hours after he was arrested (and four hours after he had his last drink). And what punishment does he get from his employers?

Nothing.

La Russa was back in uniform the next day. He wasn't suspended, not by the Cardinals, not by MLB. Despite engaging in extremely dangerous and selfish behavior, La Russa joined the parade of MLB players and coaches who have faced zero penalty for drinking to excess and getting behind the wheel.

In fact, this is the norm in MLB. Baseball has a drinking problem, but it'd prefer that you not know about it. Dontrelle Willis was also nailed for DUI this offseason, but it barely made a ripple. Gustavo Chacin was charged with DUI earlier this month, received no sanction or suspension, and hasn't even taken La Russa's step of issuing an apology. Last year, Esteban Loaiza was caught driving 120 mph, drunk, and if anything, he punished Oakland by continuing to pitch like Esteban Loaiza. Alcohol is an accepted part of the fabric of the game; there is free beer in almost every clubhouse, and there are beer billboards on every stadium wall and beer ads on TV during nearly every commercial break.

When I worked for the Blue Jays, we were offered a pitcher in trade -- someone still in the major leagues -- and the GM making the offer acknowledged that the pitcher was a serious alcoholic who had been stopped four times for driving under the influence since joining the organization. We also had an incident in which three of our minor leaguers were in a car that was pulled over for driving recklessly; the player behind the wheel had been drinking. The local sheriff called the club and the whole thing was swept under the rug without ever hitting the press. Talk to people with other clubs and you'll hear similar stories -- the goal is to keep these peccadilloes internal.

If that's not bad enough, some Cardinals fans are actually excusing La Russa's inexcusable mistake. Mike Goldstein of ESPN-760 in West Palm Beach pointed me to an article in the Palm Beach Post that included some quotes from fans who seemed to think that driving drunk isn't such a big deal:

"He was asleep at a stoplight, for God sakes. He wasn't hurting anyone. He has long days. The sun gets to you … I was more appalled by the whole idea of him getting [a DUI citation]. They could have let him go. I don't think the cops needed to give him one. Follow him home. Big deal."

In the Cardinals' first game after La Russa's arrest, he received a standing ovation from the crowd. So it appears that engaging in a reckless and stupid activity that kills thousands of people every year is not only acceptable but also makes you some sort of folk hero -- and earns you no sanction from your team or MLB.

Who committed the more egregious violation: Guillermo Mota, caught using steroids last year and suspended for the first 50 games of 2007, or Gustavo Chacin, caught for DUI this month and facing no suspension or penalty? Which is the bigger crime: cheating in sports or driving drunk?

The Cardinals and Blue Jays and Marlins all took the easy way out with their DUIs -- they ignored them. (The A's did do something after Loaiza was arrested -- they took the free beer out of both the home and visitors' clubhouses.) What I'd like to see is for one club to take a hard line when a player, or especially a manager or coach, is caught driving under the influence. Send the individual to rehab, if there is an alcohol problem. In La Russa's case, the club could easily give him a choice: rehab (if he does have an alcohol problem) or resignation. We don't want your liability, we don't want your bad press and we especially don't want to condone or enable such selfish and dangerous behavior.

Keith Law, formerly the special assistant to the general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays, provides baseball analysis and commentary for Scouts Inc. and ESPN.com and writes an ESPN Insider blog here.