Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Baseball’s Alcoholic Awakening

Ever since the first professional team, baseball’s history has been littered with stories of alcoholic exploits. In the game’s early days, these antics were part of a player’s character, tall tales that made them unique and even endowed them to fans.

As baseball grew in public stature in the 1920s and 1930s, for example, many players were known as much for their off-the-field alcoholic-fueled incidents as their on-the-field achievements. Drinking made a ballplayer “a man’s man” and was as much a part of the game as fielding, stealing, and throwing a spitball. Of course, most people know Babe Ruth, who more than any personified the beer-swigging ballplayer, but there was also future Hall of Famers Rube Waddell and Hack Wilson, both of whom no doubt had their careers cut short because of alcohol. Even the man who inspired the name of the Cleveland Indians, Louis Sockalexis, was a known alcoholic whose career was hampered by the bottle.

Then there was Bugs Raymond, a talent so addicted to spirits his manager once tried to avoid paying him for fear that his paycheck would go directly for liquor and wine.

Years later, millions of baseball fans rooted for the likes of Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, and other Yankees of the 1950s and 60s known as much for their wining as their winning. Then there were the 1986 New York Mets, a team mostly made up of drunken brawlers who tore up airplanes and partied their way to a World Championship.

And these are the players and teams we know. There were no doubt other major leaguers and countless minor leaguers who struggled anonymously with alcoholism throughout the history of the game. Men who left the fraternity of baseball bruised, boozed, and broken.

Fortunately, somewhere along the way, our glorification of the drinking athlete changed. Perhaps it was Jim Bourton’s behind the scenes classic baseball book “Ball Four”.  Perhaps it was the explosion of cocaine use in the 1980s. Perhaps it was the constant trials and tribulations of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. Maybe it was Martin’s DUI death in 1989. Maybe it was the gossipization of the sports world today spearheaded by media outlets such as Deadspin and TMZ. Maybe it was a combination of all of the above. Whatever the reason, fans and front offices alike no longer have the tolerance for those addicted to mind-altering chemicals.

We see them drink and make fools of themselves and we are disgusted. We no longer give them a pass or excuse their behavior as “part of being an athlete”. We read about who spends too much time in social circles. We are even aware of minor leaguers with alcoholic problems. We thankfully no longer consider athletes who drink excessively as heroes and characters to be emulated. Today we view them for who they really are, tragic victims of a struggle against chemical dependency.

Back in the day, antics such as getting arrested in a speakeasy (Wilson), leaving a game between innings to visit a local bar (Raymond), jumping out of a brothel and hurting your leg (Sockalexis), or even more recently, throwing a no-hitter “half-drunk” (former Yankee David Wells) were part of legend and were either celebrated or whisked under the rug by “team-friendly” media. Today, no one considers what Matt Bush did (steal an SUV, get wasted at a local bar, get kicked out of strip club, and then get in a possibly-deadly accident) a joke. We see it for what it really is: criminal and detrimental to the well-being of society.

(By the way, this is a great moment to re-read Will Leitch’s essay on former St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Josh Hancock, who sadly died in a drunk driving incident in April 2007.)

Seeing alcohol abuse as a problem and not as a positive trait in ballplayers is a good thing. By exposing athletes such as Matt Bush as tragic figures, they become human to us, people we can identify with, feel pity for, and possibly even help.

(Sadly, in Matt Bush’s case, as in the Josh Lueke sexual incident, no matter how many people feel sorry for Matt Bush or sympathize with his condition, someone will always hate him. The family of Tony Tufano has every right to wish the worst for Matt Bush as it was his actions that severely impacted their loved one. Even if Tufano survives, he won’t be the same. No one in his family will be. And that’s Matt Bush’s fault.)

Personally, as much as I understand alcohol abuse to be wrong and that it is a powerful drug that ruins lives, I fear I am still clueless as to what makes someone an alcoholic. A friend recently asked me if I had any friends or family members who were ever addicted to alcohol. To be perfectly honest, I struggled with the answer. Although I have known plenty of people during my time in the military, in college, and beyond who like to drink, enjoy drinking, and have gotten drunk quite often, I don’t think I have ever known anyone who could be categorized as an alcoholic. But would I know the difference?

Is alcoholism getting blitzed every weekend? Is it blacking out regularly? Is it going to work with a hangover? Is it drinking to relax every night? Is it drinking to get drunk at home by yourself because you have nothing better to do on a Friday night? Is it the need to be present in a bar several times a week because that’s where you feel most at home?

I can’t profess to know the answer to these questions just as I am not sure what categories, if any, Matt Bush fell into. Maybe that makes me lucky. I would hate to think it makes me ignorant and that I have possibly somewhere along the way turned a blind eye to someone who needed help.

Although I honestly and admittedly currently might not be able to tell the difference between casual drinking and addictive drinking, I know there are people who can. People who don’t think it’s acceptable for our athletic public figures to be associated with heavy alcohol use. People who don’t think Babe Ruth, Hack Wilson, Rube Waddell, or Bugs Raymond are acceptable role models. People who can step in and help Matt Bush, Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, and anyone else struggling with addiction to get their lives back on track.

Before he died of liver cancer in 1995, Mickey Mantle spent time in the Betty Ford Clinic attempting to recover from years of heavy drinking and erratic and destructive behavior. He had become a hazard to his family, his friends, and most importantly, himself. While former teammate and drinking partner Ryne Duren had let go of the bottle and began counseling people on the dangers of addiction, Mantle had kept drinking long after his playing days.

According to author Jane Leavy, before he passed away, Mantle expressed regret that he allowed alcohol to take so much away from him in life and in baseball. Here’s hoping Matt Bush gets the help he needs to guide him away from a Mantle-esque life of regret, whether it be in or out of baseball.

That would be a baseball tale worth telling.