In June 1983, Whitey Herzog, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, traded former MVP Keith Hernandez for two relief pitchers, neither of whom ever did much in the big leagues. He let people know why he’d made the trade - he was convinced Hernandez was abusing cocaine, and he didn’t want him on his team.
Hernandez threatened, but never brought, a lawsuit. Two years later, during the Pittsburgh drug trials, Herzog, by then the manager of a pennant winning Cardinals club, was vindicated.
This off-season the Cubs traded away reliever Kyle Farnsworth primarily, rumor had it, because they were convinced his drinking and womanizing had made it impossible for him ever to fulfill his potential. Last off-season, the Mets released Shane Spencer after two incidents involving alcohol. The Giants non-tendered catcher A.J. Pierzynski this winter; reports later indicated that he’d kneed trainer Stan Conte in the crotch during a spring training game.
And I can think of at least three instances - the trades of Fernando Tatis, Jeremy Giambi, and Bobby Estelella - in the last five years where a contending team traded a key player rumored to be on steroids, only for him to collapse with his new team. All of those players washed out of baseball at an early age.
All this is to say that players are traded or outright released all the time because of sketchy off-field activities, be they rumored or real, and they have been throughout baseball history. Rogers Hornsby was once traded three times in two years; one suspects that had more to do with his habit of urinating on his teammates in the shower than with his lifetime .358 average.
So I laughed when I read what Atlanta Braves General Manager John Schuerholz had to say earlier this week about the plight of the baseball executive faced with steroid abusers.
“If we had our suspicions,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “all we could do was ask the player, and if the player said no, we were done. We had nowhere to go. Our hands were tied behind our backs.”
This is the same man who in the 1980s presided over a Royals team that sported three members who pled guilty to federal drug charges. It’s remarkable how often Schuerholz finds himself with his hands tied behind his back.
“As general managers,” Schuerholz said, “we didn’t turn our heads away from players who might be using steroids because it was a benefit to us. No, if we turned our heads,it out of frustration because there was nothing we could do about it. Sadly, we didn’t have the authority to test players or fix the problem.”
It’s interesting how willing Schuerholz is to conflate drug testing with fixing the problem. We can debate whether steroids are a problem at all, just as we can debate whether Herzog was right to consider Hernandez’s drug use a problem.
But if one believes steroids to be a problem - and Schuerholz apparently thinks they are - there’s an easy easy way for any GM to fix the problem: Get rid of the player who’s causing it. Trade him, release him, or buy out his contract if he’s a problem. The collective bargaining agreement prevents a team from releasing a player because the team merely suspects he’s on steroids; it certainly does not prevent them from paying a player what he’s owed and telling him not to let the door hit him on the way out.
Herzog didn’t hesitate to do that. Neither did Rogers Hornsby’s managers.
When one considers all that, Schuerholz’s protestation that he didn’t ignore the drug problem because it benefited him doesn’t seem to be worth much, especially when contrasted with San Diego GM Kevin Towers’s raw honesty.
“The truth is, we’re in a competitive business,” he told ESPN.com, “and these guys were putting up big numbers and helping your ballclub win games. You tended to turn your head on things.”
One could believe Schuerholz when he claims he could do nothing about steroids. But it seems much more likely that he either didn’t consider it to be a problem - and there are some persuasive arguments to be made that it wasn’t, and isn’t - or that if it was a problem, it wasn’t important enough to be worth the price of solving.
Think of the Yankees’ situation. Everyone knows they’d do anything to get Jason Giambi off their team - anything other than simply cutting him a check for the balance of his contract and telling him to go away.
Drugs are never a problem for baseball teams and executives until they become an embarrassment, and even then they’re not a problem worth solving if it costs a dollar.
I don’t know if Whitey Herzog was right to think that Keith Hernandez’s nightlife was affecting his ballclub, but I respect him for taking the steps he did to ensure it didn’t. He would rather have had no first baseman than one he felt was harming himself and his team, and he proved it.
When GMs start releasing players they know to be juicing - and don’t for a second buy all this talk about “suspicion” - and when they stop signing them, that will be a sign that they think steroids are a problem in baseball. The easiest way for someone to prove he’s serious is to reach for his wallet.