Jan
07

Inside Major League Baseball’s alcohol problem

By

As 2007 neared an end ten days ago, Jim Leyritz, suspended license and all, got behind the wheel of his car after a night out. During his drive home, as numerous sources have reported, he crashed his car and, in the crash, a Florida woman died. He has since been arrested on suspicion of DUI and vehicular homicide and, if convicted, faces up to 16 years in jail.

Jim Leyrtiz’s story is one of tragedy. The death of a 30-year-old mother because Jim Leyritz was allegedly driving drunk is tragic. Leyrtiz’s ultimate fate — a potential jail sentence of 16 years — is tragic. Leyritz was beloved by his fans, his co-workers and his family. Now, his life is in tatters, and the lives of the Fredia Ann Veitch’s family is ruined.

But for this tragedy, this story is not an isolated incident in recent baseball past. When Cardinals’ reliever Josh Hancock died in a car crash, his BAC was nearly double the legal limit. Six weeks earlier, Tony LaRussa had been arrested and charged with a DUI. For all the talk about steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, I have to wonder: Does Major League Baseball have an alcohol problem?

In Sunday’s Daily News, Mike Jaccarino and Rich Schapiro penned an investigative tabloid piece on Jim Leyritz’s lifestyle during and after his baseball career. The portrait that emerges — one of a hard-partying man with no regard for money and a penchant toward booze — is not one that reflects well on Major League Baseball.

The story opens with a moment we all know too well: the forging of the Yankee Dynasty. Jim Leyritz delivers a game-changing, history-changing home run in game 4 of the 1996 World Series. Mark Wohlers is never the same; the Yankees are never the same; and baseball is never the same. By Jaccarino and Schapiro’s account, that day was the pinnacle of Leyritz’s career, and the King would try to regain his throne without succeeding.

As early as 1993, Leyritz was on a path to trouble. He admitted to taking amphetamines during his breakout season to combat the effects of hangovers. But it was after his days in New York were over. Pushed out by players and coaches put off by his ego, Leyritz would try to live up to his moniker, and after retirement, a life of excess took over:

Leyritz still wore his trademark cowboy hat and designer sunglasses. He drove fast and recklessly, leading to his driver’s license being suspended three times in Florida and once in New York.

His drinking never stopped.

Court documents show Leyritz spent thousands of dollars on booze in a single four-month period in 2003. He admitted that his once hefty finances – he made about $10.8 million in his 11 seasons in the majors – had dwindled to $600,000.

But for all of the sensationalistic stories about drug use, ego and alcohol, The Daily News story hints at something deeper without really getting there: By all accounts, Jim Leyritz was not alone in his partying ways. Frequent stories appear in print of baseball players partying the night away and arriving at work bleary-eyed. Of course, we expect that nowadays and have expected it since Mickey Mantle’s time and since Babe Ruth’s time.

It’s not okay though. In an era marked by a steroid witchhunt, it’s time for baseball to take action on alcohol abuse among Major Leaguers. Too often, substance abuse issues are marked as part of the “culture of baseball.” But that isn’t a good excuse.

Performance-enhancing drugs are at once the Holy Grail and the Red Herring of baseball. Stop the cheaters and preserver the purity of the game in the eyes of the public, the argument goes. It certainly sounds good as a PR move.

Dealing with alcohol issues are tougher. We all like to enjoy a beer or two while watching a game on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and beer is indeed an ingrained part of going to a baseball game. But if Major League Baseball is intent on helping its players, on helping them stay away from PEDs or amphetamines, it all should start with curtailing alcohol consumption and making sure players have access to a strong support staff.

Jim Leyritz made $10 million in his career, and he was used to a life in the fast lane because no one taught him otherwise. His money is almost gone, and at age 44, he’s looking at considerable jail time for something that should have been avoided. I doubt this incident — a seminal one in the history of baseball — will spur on a Michell Investigation for alcohol, but it really should. Here is an area where MLB can easily do more, and once again, they’ve dropped the ball.

Categories : Rants
  • Jeff

    Ben I don’t think this is a baseball problem more than it is a general public problem. I think brushing the whole MLB with one stroke is a bit much and unnecessary.
    What Leyritz, or Larussa did was wrong but no more than Joe down the street who probably did the same thing last night and just didn’t wind up in the national media because he’s not famous.
    Sorry for the criticism. I love this blog and think you guys are great writers, thinkers, and baseball fans.

  • deadrody

    Yeah, that about sums it up, Jeff. Alcohol is hardly a problem unique or limited to MLB players and coaches.

    I’m pretty sure the organization is MADD, not MADMPC (mothers against drunk MLB players and coaches)

  • Jorge Steinbrenner

    I think there’s probably problems with all sorts of excesses with every sport, or every industry in which we put people up on some sort of mantra, pay them millions of dollars, and tell them they’re gods.

    However, citing Josh Hancock, Tony Larussa and, repeatedly, Jim Leyritz, isn’t much of an argument for me either as to alcohol running rampant in baseball.

  • http://www.baseballdigestdaily.com/ Dave Rouleau

    Jeff,

    You have a good point, but like all problems in baseball (PEDs, violence, etc.), they are not strictly found in baseball.

    While we could never demand that players be saints, they are playing on a different stage than amateur players and their actions are more scrutinized. For LaRussa to be taken into custody, drunk, is not ‘supposed to happen’. That was dumb, dumb, dumb. The only difference with Leyritz is that nobody got killed when LaRussa took the wheel with his judgment impaired.

    I like the article, agree with Jeff too, but baseball is America’s pastime and deserves to be held at a higher standard by its artisans, whoever they may be.

    Dave
    Baseball Digest Daily

  • Jeff

    Dave,

    That was exactly my point that problems that baseball players run into are not strictly found in baseball. Thety are everywhere in every sport and in every neighborhood. Why put baseball in a bad light because of Lyritz being a bad apple. He was a drunk driver like so many – thats it. No need to bring baseball down because of him.
    I have no problem using him and his public stature to show how bad drunk driving is. I understand that public figures are scrutinized right or wrong. But to say this is a baseball problem is sad, and dumb, and ridiculous. Media BS – plain and simple.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Ben K.

      I don’t see how this is “media BS” or “sad and dumb” when numerous reports over the years have mentioned the hard-partying ways of baseball players. I’m not saying they shouldn’t drink at all, but it sounds to me like a support system for players suffering from alcohol abuse is sorely lacking.

      I could take your argument and insert the name Barry Bonds for Leyritz. No need to bring baseball down because of him. Yet, that’s exactly what’s happening. As I said, the steroid issue is a fake issue compared to this one. Steroids have less of a tangible impact on other people’s lives but are easier to sell to the public as a “threat” to the game.

  • Jeff

    I agree that Barry Bonds et al steroid users and the overblown reports are bringing down baseball but so to does labeling baseball players “hard-partying” acohol abusers. I couldn’t be more disappointed with how Steroids have gotten more attention recently that the game itself. That is exactly why I think this type of making a baseball issue out of something that hardly has to do with the game is sad.
    Sorry, Ben I think we’re going to have to disagree on this one.

  • http://riveraveblues.com Mike A.

    The change has to start at the top. Baseball players are role models whether they like it or not, and I think Ben raises an excellent point. Tony LaRussa’s incident didn’t get nearly enough attention – he’s supposed to be in a position of authority.

    Let’s not forget Steve Swindell either. If he didn’t get busted for drinking and driving that night, there’d be no Hankenstein monster right now.

    I certainly agree that it’s just as bad if Joe Shmo down the street drinks and drives, but saying that MLB players should be able to get away with it because no one is out there hounding Mr. Shmo is terrifying logic.

  • Bo

    Wow!

    Baseball players drink????

    A shocking expose!! Where are the Pulitzers for this???

  • Marsha

    I don’t think it matters whether Jim Leyritz is a baseball player or your neighbor down the hall. What matters is the lack of support system for people who cannot control their destructive impulses, whether it’s Dwight Gooden, Daryl Strawberry, or Jim Leyritz. When people who are not used to having a seemingly unlimited supply of money are not given guidance and support in how to deal with this unnatural state of affairs some of them are prone to excesses. It is up to the league/team ownership/friends/family to steer these people in the right direction.

  • John

    “Leyrtiz’s ultimate fate — a potential jail sentence of 16 years — is tragic. Leyritz was beloved by his fans, his co-workers and his family. Now, his life is in tatters…”

    I don’t think tragic means what you think it means.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Ben K.

      Feel free to educate us then on the proper use of the word instead of leaving a snarky, half-formulated comment.

    • dan

      Tragic:

      2. extremely mournful, melancholy, or pathetic: a tragic plight.
      3. dreadful, calamitous, disastrous, or fatal

      Seems pretty appropriate in context

  • Joe

    These problems are not unique to baseball, but for certain franchises, they are uniquely part of their identity. Let’s narrow it down by saying that the Yankees have an alcohol problem. It’s practically ingrained in their legend. Babe Ruth, anyone? There’s a certain glamour to wear pinstripes and be hungover. It’s an accepted part of Yankee culture. Start there. Then go to St. Louis, where you can’t swing a dead cat without seeing Busch or Budweiser on something. Not every franchise deserves a Hancock or a Leyritz wake-up call, but they all could learn from it.

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