Commentary

Alcohol-related issues spark debate

Is it a growing problem that six players have been arrested for DUI since January?

Originally Published: May 10, 2011
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

BALTIMORE -- Orioles pitcher Jeremy Guthrie is your basic baseball renaissance man. He studied sociology at Stanford, served a two-year Mormon mission in Spain and speaks fluent Spanish. On his Twitter account, Guthrie describes himself as "a happily married, bicycle-riding, music-loving, shoe-collecting, world-traveling, Earth-conscious, pitcher in The SHOW."

Last week, after White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen received a $20,000 fine for leveling some umpire-related criticisms on Twitter and Atlanta pitcher Derek Lowe and Cleveland outfielder Shin-Soo Choo were arrested for driving under the influence, Guthrie dispensed some food for thought. In a concise 135 characters, Baltimore's resident Tweeting Bird compared the short-term repercussions of the three incidents:

JGuthrie46 Jeremy Guthrie
Tweeting about umps during game=$20,000 fine & 2-game suspension. Driving Under the Influence=$0.00 MLB fine. @MADDonline @ozzieguillen

Miguel Cabrera
AP Photo/St. Lucie County Sheriff's OfficeMiguel Cabrera was arrested in Florida and charged with driving under the influence and resisting arrest back in February.

In reflecting upon his comments several days later, Guthrie said he wasn't trying to mandate Major League Baseball policy -- merely pointing out what he perceived as "inconsistent" consequences of disparate actions. He said 99 percent of the fan response he received was supportive.

"As an individual, I don't necessarily want Major League Baseball or anyone else to do anything," Guthrie said. "I would just hope the players involved can be more responsible, just as I would expect any standard licensed driver to be responsible, because you're putting someone's life in danger. The only difference between receiving a DUI and killing someone is luck."

If that is, indeed, the case, then six Major League Baseball players should consider themselves quite fortunate right now. When DUI arrests are running neck-and-neck with no-hitters as the game's most prominent trend and TMZ.com becomes a go-to site for mug shots and other baseball "news," it's clear that the debate has taken a turn in a previously unforeseen direction.

The rash of bad news began in January, when Seattle infielder Adam Kennedy was arrested on a DUI charge in Newport Beach, Calif. It continued in spring training, when Cleveland outfielder Austin Kearns, Detroit first baseman Miguel Cabrera and Oakland outfielder Coco Crisp were also arrested on charges of driving under the influence.

The Cabrera incident was particularly unsettling. According to police reports, the five-time All-Star forced other vehicles off the road while driving an SUV that was smoking beneath the hood. With bloodshot eyes and slurred speech, Cabrera took a drink from a bottle of Scotch whiskey in front of a sheriff's deputy. He was charged with DUI and two misdemeanor counts of resisting an officer without violence, and is scheduled for a hearing June 10 in Fort Pierce, Fla.

The list recently expanded from four offenders to six. On April 28, a Georgia state trooper stopped Lowe on an Atlanta street and charged the pitcher with DUI, reckless driving and improper lane change. Four days later, Choo was pulled over by a suburban Cleveland police officer when his vehicle crossed the double yellow lines and drifted into a bike path. After failing a field sobriety test, Choo took a Breathalyzer test and registered a blood alcohol content of 0.201, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

Lowe and Choo both issued apologies through their clubs. But they now must deal with the fallout that results from embarrassing themselves and their organizations, not to mention waking their general managers with a late-night call no team executive wants to receive.

Even as the alleged offenders hire attorneys and, in some cases, contest their punishments in legal proceedings that could take months to resolve, they're branded in the public eye for their actions, and there's only so much they can do to reclaim their reputations.

"Ballplayers aren't like everybody else, where you, your wife and your family deal with it and that's it," said Braves pitcher Tim Hudson. "A lot of times you may not actually be guilty of DUI, but you're charged with it. And in the public's eye, everybody in America thinks you're a drunk and you were reckless driving and endangering yourself and other people. That may not be the case, but everybody's opinion is made as soon as your name and your face are plastered all over the TV."

How big a problem?

Major League Baseball has 1,200 players on 40-man rosters. Do six drunken driving incidents in a five-month span reflect a deep-rooted problem, or is this simply a case of 0.5 percent of the work force exercising extremely poor judgment? One baseball official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, believes it's more the latter.

"I think it's a mistake to assume that we have some sort of looming crisis," the official said. "We may have six all bunched together, but there may not be another one the whole year. It's just too small a data set to make a big conclusion about."

Regardless of the conclusions drawn, the momentum is pointing toward change. MLB executive vice president Rob Manfred and Players Association executive director Michael Weiner, the men who will negotiate the game's new collective bargaining agreement, said discussions toward a new DUI policy were in the works well before it emerged as such a highly publicized, hot-button issue.

"Going back well over a year, we had planned on making an alcohol policy a topic for discussion at the table," Manfred told ESPN.com.

Baseball's joint drug agreement currently makes provisions for 45 performance-enhancing drugs ranging from Androstenedione to Trenbolone, as well as recreational drugs such as cocaine, LSD and heroin, but does not specifically address alcohol use. Instead, MLB, the Players Association and the clubs have dealt with the issue informally on a case-by-case basis through the years.

Cabrera initially landed on baseball's radar when he was involved in an alcohol-related dispute with his wife late in the 2009 pennant race. Because of his multiple transgressions, Cabrera is now monitored by MLB in a fashion similar to Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton, whose history of drug and alcohol abuse required him to abide by certain conditions upon his return from the restricted list in 2006.

Historically, baseball has cracked down much harder on drugs that affect on-field performance than substances players might use in the privacy of their own home. Mike Cameron, then with San Diego, received a 25-game suspension in October 2007 for a banned stimulant that he claimed came from a tainted nutritional supplement. Manny Ramirez was suspended 50 games for his first PED violation and was in line for a 100-game suspension as a second-time offender when he chose to retire in April.

Buck Showalter There's a reason why [alcohol is] not in the locker room now, or on the plane coming home. And there's a reason why there's not a case of beer on the bus in spring training. The culture is changing.

-- Orioles manager Buck Showalter

In contrast, a player who tests positive for cocaine can be evaluated by medical experts, consent to a treatment program and avoid any kind of ban at all.

The reality is that a player who is pinched for drunken driving may not necessarily have a "problem." He might just be guilty of a temporary lapse of judgment while using a legal substance.

There's also the question of whether a player's off-field mistake has an impact on his employer. If Shin-Soo Choo suffers an injury while driving impaired or Derek Lowe is forced to miss games while going to court to fight his DUI charge, is it sufficient for their teams to simply dock them pay for time missed? Or can teams take it a step further and try to fine players for misconduct that reflects poorly on the organization? There are myriad questions the parties have to sort through as they try to craft a policy with a suitable mix of treatment and disciplinary options.

"For years, the bargaining parties have informally dealt with players in need of treatment in connection with alcohol," Weiner said. "I expect we'll have discussions at the bargaining table about the possibility of formalizing those arrangements. The goal is to make sure that baseball players have access to the best resources available when it comes to this issue."

Culture change

This year's run of DUI arrests has come at a time when national statistics are trending in the right direction as the result of education and increased public awareness of the dangers of drunken driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that an estimated 10,839 people died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes in 2009 -- a 49 percent decline from the 21,113 deaths in 1982, when the group first began tracking alcohol-related fatalities.

Baseball received a major wake-up call in May 2007, when Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock was killed when his sport utility vehicle smashed into a tow truck on a St. Louis highway. Hancock declined an offer of a cab ride home from a local restaurant, had a blood alcohol content of 0.157 (almost twice the legal limit) and was talking on a cell phone at the time of the accident.

In a tragic incident two years later, Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart lost his life just a few hours after pitching a game when he was riding in a car that was broadsided by a minivan with a drunk driver behind the wheel.

Hancock's death had a sobering effect, both literally and figuratively, on baseball clubhouses. Many teams have significantly curtailed or eliminated the availability of alcohol in clubhouses, and no longer serve alcohol on flights at the end of road trips, when players might be driving home from the airport.

Along with the moral imperative to try to reduce drunken driving, franchises are also aware of liability concerns in America's litigious society. Baseball's Rookie Development Program alerts top minor league prospects to the dangers of drunken driving each January, and MLB's security officials address the issue at the 30 team sites in Arizona and Florida in spring training.

Still, each team is free to enact its own rules. The Phillies stopped serving hard liquor on team flights several years ago, but still allow beer and wine on charters. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said that for now, he's content to trust the judgment of players after impressing upon them the consequences of their actions.

"We may have issues the day after tomorrow, but fortunately for us, we've had guys who are very responsible about it," Amaro said. "We're not going to stop guys from drinking. They're free to do whatever they want as far as that's concerned. But we are conscious of it, and if we feel there's a reason to change our policy, we will."

The times and public perception have certainly changed. When Phillies teammates Lenny Dykstra and Darren Daulton were involved in a car crash on their way home from teammate John Kruk's bachelor party in 1991 and stories circulated about impromptu keg parties in the Philadelphia trainer's room, many fans and media members embraced the team as a hard-drinking, hard-core-bonding bunch of baseball frat boys.

In recent years, players have abandoned 12-ounce curls in the name of more strenuous activity. After Roy Halladay pitched the Phillies past Washington in the NL East title clincher last September, he took part in the postgame reveling, then peeled off his champagne-soaked jersey and headed to the weight room for a workout. A couple of weeks later, the Rangers used ginger ale to spray Hamilton and pitcher C.J. Wilson, whose participation in the "Straight Edge" lifestyle prohibits the consumption of alcohol.

"My first year in New York [with the Yankees], we used to have beer on tap," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "You could put a beer in a cup and walk right out with it. There's a reason why it's not in the locker room now, or on the plane coming home. And there's a reason why there's not a case of beer on the bus in spring training. The culture is changing."

Scrutiny abounds

As much as teams would like to babysit players 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, athletes are adults and free to make their own choices, and many indiscretions occur on off days away from the ballpark. And it's not just the players: In the spring of 2007, St. Louis manager Tony La Russa fell asleep at a green light in his SUV during spring training. La Russa was exhausted from long days at the park and made the mistake of having some wine with dinner, but it didn't ease his sense of embarrassment.

Today's suffocating, round-the-clock media coverage has also forced professional athletes to have their antennae on constant alert. Players are still allowed to have fun, but they do so with the knowledge that someone is invariably watching.

"The way the social media is nowadays, everywhere you look there's a camera or a camera phone or somebody taking pictures of you, putting it on the Internet or blogs or Twitter and all that stuff," Hudson said. "You can't do what you did 15 years ago. If you go out and have a couple of beers with some of your teammates at a bar, the world knows about it in 20 minutes."

Joe Maddon If there's a problem, I would prefer we went into the educational tone more than the punitive tone immediately. Too many times we want to become punitive about everything. This isn't just a baseball problem. It's societal.

-- Rays manager Joe Maddon

More players today have learned to think ahead out of necessity. When Atlanta's Chipper Jones is going downtown with friends or attending a basketball or football game, he makes sure to use a car service. Even if Jones plans on having just two or three drinks, there's a level of risk he's not prepared to take.

"It all boils down to what you think is worth it and what is not," Jones said. "From a personal standpoint, I don't want to call my wife up at 4 in the morning to have her come get me out of jail, and have to explain to the plethora of media outlets the next day when I walk into the clubhouse why I was the way I was. If I want to go out and get drunk, somebody else will be bringing me home.

"Every one of us has been there and probably gotten behind the wheel of a car when we shouldn't have. We've all made stupid decisions and not paid for them. A certain few have made some bad decisions and ultimately had to pay for them. Unfortunately, those are the examples that we learn from."

With the average baseball salary approaching $3 million and a minimum salary above $400,000, players certainly can't cite cost as a concern these days.

"People talk about limo services," said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon. "You know what? It's called Yellow Cab. Every city's got one. It's not like you have to invent this new service. It already exists."

Maddon, who prides himself on having as few rules as possible, sees a danger in drawing too many conclusions from a handful of unsavory incidents. He does not condone drunken driving, but believes that a ballplayer should have the same latitude as the guy down at the loading dock to enjoy a cold one after a hard day's work.

"I'll say this loud and clear: There's nothing wrong with a grownup having a beer after playing nine innings and losing eight pounds because he sweated a lot," Maddon said. "It's not right to have 10 beers. But it's OK to have a beer or two. And it's OK to have a glass of wine.

"If there's a problem, I would prefer we went into the educational tone more than the punitive tone immediately. Too many times we want to become punitive about everything. This isn't just a baseball problem. It's societal."

Even Guthrie, who doesn't drink alcohol in conjunction with his Mormon faith, stopped short of calling for blanket punishments for conduct beyond the workplace. And Jones, Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino and Baltimore first baseman Derrek Lee all expressed reservations about baseball adopting a one-size-fits-all policy as a knee-jerk reaction to the recent rash of DUI arrests. As Jones observed, DUI cases can have a lot of "gray areas" and take months to play out in court.

"I think it's something the law can handle," Lee said. "If you get arrested and lose your license for how many years, that's a pretty good punishment. I think you're going to learn a lesson right there. I would probably leave baseball out of it, but I think we do need to take more responsibility as players and be a little bit more careful."

The main incentive, of course, is that drunk drivers kill people. As Guthrie points out, the ballplayer who gets pulled over before he does damage to something other than his reputation should consider himself fortunate. On the flip side, consider the case of NFL receiver Donte' Stallworth, who spent 24 days in jail after hitting and killing a pedestrian after a night of clubbing in Miami Beach two years ago.

"You try to make players aware that they have to make good decisions in life -- period," Showalter said. "Part of that is whether you get behind the wheel or not. It's pretty selfish, the way I look at it, and the biggest reason is that you're putting other people at risk. All the other stuff is secondary.

"You just have to define reality for players, because they live in a world where for the most part there's not a whole lot of reality. They have so many people around them who make them feel like they're different, that the rules don't apply to them. But they do. Maybe it's a coach, a manager, a policeman, a judge or whomever. But somebody out there is going to define reality for them."

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer