Baseball Struggles to Address Alcohol Problems

Alcohol has long been associated with big-league ball. Are effective changes coming?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The New York Yankees are the latest major league baseball team to impose a clubhouse ban on alcohol. The baseball clubhouse has been one of the few American workplaces to make alcohol available to employees, but now more than a dozen teams have either enacted prohibitions or are thinking about it. All this follows the recent drunk driving death of St. Louis Cardinals' pitcher Josh Hancock.

Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN: A few days before he died, 29-year-old Josh Hancock sat down with his boss and talked about drinking. At a news conference late last week, St. Louis Cardinals' Manager Tony La Russa said he knew Hancock had a problem.

Mr. TONY LA RUSSA (Manager, St. Louis Cardinals): I did have a very serious heart to heart with Josh on that Thursday. And here on Saturday, he was still drinking and crashed. So maybe I can do a better job of - in my conversation, but I pulled out all the stops.

GOLDMAN: La Russa didn't reveal what he said to Hancock and whether he used himself as a teaching moment for the young pitcher. In March, La Russa's own issues with alcohol made the news. He was arrested at spring training in Florida and charged with drunk driving after police found him asleep at the wheel of his SUV, which was idling at a stoplight. When La Russa showed up at the ballpark later that day, some fans stood and applauded.

Mr. KEITH LAW (Journalist, ESPN): He got, I guess, what you called partial standing ovation down there in Jupiter, and I just thought that was absolutely disgusting.

GOLDMAN: And it prompted ESPN journalist Keith Law to write an essay. Up until a year ago, Law worked for the Toronto Blue Jays as an assistant to the team's general manager. A baseball insider, Law wrote his essay about what he called the game's historic unwillingness to treat alcohol abuse as a serious problem. Players and managers, Law says, aren't punished by baseball after DUI arrests.

And if the players are good, they keep finding work, like the pitcher offered in trade to the Blue Jays while Law was there who'd been pulled over several times for drunk driving.

Mr. LAW: He was a good enough player that the team that employed him at that time was more than willing to overlook his problems with alcohol.

GOLDMAN: Baseball's alcohol tradition goes back to the 19th century, according to Northeastern University Law Professor Roger Abrams. His upcoming book, "The Dark Side of the Diamond" has a chapter on alcoholism. Abrams says it includes some of the game's greatest players.

Professor ROGER ABRAMS (Law, Northeastern University): Grover Cleveland Alexander was drunk while he pitched. Pete Browning, a great 19th century player, was quoted as saying, "I can't hit the ball until I hit the bottle."

GOLDMAN: Abrams acknowledges boozing in baseball isn't as bad in the 21st century. Players are more health conscious, and - says one major league official - they're more likely to lift weights after a game than chug a bunch of beers. Still, Josh Hancock is dead, and there's talk of change. More teams are considering clubhouse bans on alcohol, but most player drinking happens away from the clubhouse. That was the case with Hancock. So Roger Abrams sees the bans as more symbolic than anything.

Mr. ABRAMS: You notice that the Cardinals banned alcohol in their clubhouse. They did not ban the selling of beer in their stadium.

GOLDMAN: That's Busch Stadium, named after beer maker Anheuser-Busch. Indeed, alcohol sales and advertising are big business in baseball, and a significant reason, skeptics say, why it's unlikely there'll be change such as sanctions for alcohol offenses and meaningful education for players. Add to that baseball's obsession with cracking down on steroids, and Josh Hancock may end up a sad footnote to the season.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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