Thursday, September 9, 2010
The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven review-Baseball Didn't Learn the First Time
This is a book review weekend. Tonight, you’ll get to see what I thought of The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven and tomorrow, we’ll be talking about Max Lucado’s Outlive Your Life.
The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven is not a Christian book per se, but I do think you’ll receive some good value. Baseball fans of the era I grew up in (the late 70’s-early 80’s) will find the book dynamic.
The book begins in my favorite year to be a Pittsburgh Pirate fan, 1979. The Pirates were “The Fam-A-Lee” and won the World Series overcoming an insurmountable 3-1 deficit to the Baltimore Orioles. The story begins talking about something new in the city of Pittsburgh that year, my all time favorite bird, The Pirate Parrot. Kevin Koch (pronounced Coke) was hired for the gig and lasted five seasons donning the outfit. The pronunciation gives you a clue as to where this story is heading.
The book delves into the lives of seven men including Koch that ended up arrested and imprisoned years later for turning several Pirates and many other baseball names on to cocaine. But the story is more than that. It also looks at the lives of several baseball players that took the drug and ended the story with immunity instead of going to jail.
We hear the story of Rod Scurry. A kid drafted to play in Pittsburgh that loved the game and left for summer ball two days after graduation. He signed and wanted to get started. We get to see how he made it to Pittsburgh, began cocaine use, how it affected him and in the end, his eventual death in 1992. It saddened me to see how much love he had for the game and with cocaine, that love didn’t matter anymore. The high mattered, the party mattered and his life fell apart.
That’s the sad part of this whole story is the promise of good to great players and how cocaine flushed those dreams and aspirations. Lonnie Smith, who goes down in history as the only player to ever play for three different World Series champions in the same decade, admitted in the Curtis Strong trial of 1985 that the game didn’t matter much at all. It was just something that had to be done until the next party.
The story also shared the lives of the men that had to put the puzzle together of the FBI and the US Attorney’s office. They share how they caught up to different players in this saga and how they got the players to turn over information on the seven men.
There is also the colorful Curtis Strong trial in September. This also introduced us to the lawyer that put baseball on trial during this time. The lawyer’s name was Adam Renfroe and as a teen by then, I remembered his flashy clothes as he stood on the city building’s steps and even remarked at the time that he looked like a pimp. However, this lawyer in pimp’s clothing broke down several players and showed that drug use in baseball was widespread in the 70’s and 80’s. Ironically, years later, he would be busted for doing cocaine and then admitted that he had been using for 16 years.
The toughest part of reading this book was seeing one of my boyhood idols be the centerpiece of this book, two time National League MVP Dave Parker. For years I could not remember the exact date, but it was July 20, 1980 that charted a course of history. It was Willie Stargell Day and I still have the coins from the game. During one of the doubleheader games, guys about 20 rows below me began throwing batteries at Parker. I remember being 11 years old at the time in total confusion as to why someone would do that. The reasoning behind the throwing was Parker’s million dollar a year salary. It also began the ball rolling on Parker heading toward the exit door.
However, throughout the book, author Aaron Skirboll doesn’t just show Parker as a user, but almost like a middleman to the team. He helped hook Pirates John Milner, Scurry, Dale Berra and guys on other teams like current Reds manager Dusty Baker. That disappointed me. What did make me feel better was that Parker got clean in 1983 around the time his daughter was born. He didn’t want her to see life like that.
I ran into Parker a few years back at Spring Training thanks to my friend Bill Morton. We talked briefly, but I didn’t get to share with him that I was there that day in 1980 and even though his career didn’t work out like he wanted it to, that I still admired him as a player and more as a man for having the guts to walk away from the drug.
There was a section that talks about current Met announcer and 1979 National League Co-MVP Keith Hernandez. Hernandez had denied repeatedly that he did cocaine and then admitted it in court at the Strong trial. The story tells that Hernandez went back to New York and was given a hero’s welcome of standing ovations. The judge of the trial discussed how disappointed he was with fans that they would give a criminal such praise. However, I understand fans. If you remember during the Steroid scandal that San Francisco Giants fans continued to celebrate as Barry Bonds marched toward history. It is very much the same thing. One, Hernandez was never convicted of anything. Two, fans of baseball are much like owners of baseball. We don’t mind drug use, convictions or anything else bad happening to other teams’ guys, but we will stand behind our guys. I look at how heartbreaking the whole Mark McGwire thing became and even though I am not an A’s or Cardinals fan, I stood behind him because of what he did for the game of baseball. You will remember that the next year, not only was Hernandez ELECTED to the All Star Game, but he also helped the Mets bring home their first championship since 1969. Of course, Hernandez is a hero.
The best part of the book for me was the aftermath section. Skirboll gave us a where are they now placing of all the people involved. He also focused on Major League Baseball’s mistake not to press the drug issue in 1986. Even though he didn’t talk about the Steroid Era, he showed you why it happened. It happened because MLB and the Players’ Union could not get together. The biggest reason was greed. Twenty years later, that greed blew up in their faces.
I’ll close with a thought that many people will disagree with me on. A lot of critics say that the drug era of baseball will go down as Bud Selig’s problem. However, I strongly disagree with that. Seeing how hard it was for then Commissioner Peter Ueberroth to even try to turn the tide, Bud Selig should go down as the Commissioner that was able to change baseball and begin to straighten it up. Mr. Selig met the issue head on, yes in part thanks to Congress, but with that help was able to get the Players’ Union to begin working toward making this whole drug problem in baseball go right.
The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven is a must read for any baseball fan that wants to examine how drugs affected this great game of ours. If you are a Pirate fan in the “Fam-A-Lee” generation, you definitely want to read this to see how it all came unraveled. I came out of the book a bigger fan of the game understanding its pitfalls. I also came out of this book a bigger fan of Lonnie Smith. Smith made a great comment that he knew he was never a Hall of Famer, but that he would have been so much better without the drugs. He also said that of most of the players, he was one of the few who tried to cooperate with baseball. He went to rehab, he spoke publicly about the time on drugs and yet baseball tried to not do him right. You’ll have to read the back of the book more to understand.
The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven gets five stars because I was in this book from page 1. I hated putting it down until I finished it. History repeated itself with drugs, thankfully the game is getting cleaner than the first time.
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