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.