Baseball Books Reviewed: The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven

The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven: How a Ragtag Group of Fans Took the Fall for Major League Baseball by Aaron Skirboll (Chicago Review Press, 277 pg., $22.95). HB, 2010.

It's a cliché but true nonetheless that the typical fan turns to sports for entertainment and a pleasurable escape from the headaches of "real" life. Fans don’t like it when the curtain is pulled aside and they are forced to admit the fact that the sports world is infected with some of the same problems afflicting the larger society: greed, corruption, dishonesty, drug use, etc. The steroids scandal in baseball is a prime example of what I am talking about; and I, for one, have had my fill of the subject and would have to force myself to read one more book about it. Not so with The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven: How a Ragtag Group of Fans Took the Fall for Major League Baseball by Aaron Skirboll; a galling but fascinating account of an almost forgotten but important episode in the history of baseball scandals.

Skirboll begins the book with a profile of the young man who became the original Pittsburgh Pirates mascot, the Parrot: a young man named Kevin Koch, whose last name is ironically pronounced "coke." It’s a good place to start because it was through Koch that most of the “ragtag group of fans” mentioned in the subtitle –average guys with normal jobs such as plumber or bar tender- were able to associate with and supply cocaine to Pirates players. Koch’s friends were essentially starry-eyed jock sniffers and recreational drug users. Far from being "pushers," they procured cocaine for players like Dale Berra and Rod Scurry as a means of maintaining their hangers-on status. They seldom sold the drugs to the players for a profit, and, in fact, were often stiffed by the players who operated under the premise that they were special people entitled to all manner of freebies, including illegal drugs. Two of the other members of the ragtag group, introduced in subsequent chapters, Shelby Greer and Curtis Strong, more reasonably fit the definition of drug pusher and got through to the players on their own (Greer introduced himself to Dave Parker on an airplane flight).

After Skirboll delineates how these small-time users and suppliers/pushers got to the players, he follows the decline of Scurry, whose well-publicized battles with cocaine launched the F.B.I. investigation which eventually led to the Pittsburgh drug trial, the prosecution of Curtis Strong. The trial is the climax of the book and “can’t put down” reading in the hands of Skirboll. Strong, we learn, shouldn’t even have gone to trial. He would have done much better to take a plea deal, as the other six did; but Strong’s attorney, a Johnny Cochrane-type legal firebrand named Adam Renfroe, was determined to put on a show (which he did) and get his client off the hook (which he did not). All seven of the ragtag group served jail time.

The galling part of this story is what happened to the players. They were all given immunity in exchange for their testimony; an outcome that bewildered far more people than the scapegoats in the case. Even though Skirboll makes it clear, more than once, that such deals (immunity for users who testify against their providers and suppliers) are SOP, it is still a tough pill for the reader to swallow.

Even more amazing is the account of how Major League Baseball did its best not to confront or even acknowledge the problem of cocaine use (and the abuse of other less harmful drugs, such as amphetamines). The last thing MLB wanted was full public disclosure of what was going on. The prosecuting attorney told the jury in his opening statement that Curtis Strong, not baseball, was on trial; but Renfroe said just the opposite and did in fact put MLB on trial. The insistence of Pirates manager Chuck Tanner that he was completely oblivious to the drug use of his players was pathetically incredible, and the admission by several players that they had routinely participated in games while under the influence was shocking and iconoclastic. Former president of the Montreal Expos, John McHale, even avered that the team's cocaine use cost the Expos the 1982 Divisional pennant.

"Part IV: Aftermath" is the most head-shaking part of this cautionary tale, wherein Skirboll reviews MLB’s flimsy attempts to prevent similar scandals in the future. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth did sincerely want to clean up the game, but he was thwarted at every turn as much by the players’ union as he was by the owners, who were content to turn a blind eye again once the furor began to die down. Reading that baseball’s new drug enforcement policy consisted of mandatory drug testing for everyone in the game except major league players would be funny if it weren’t so cynical and absurd. And fans were not completely innocent either; at least not those who gave Keith Hernandez, the drug abuser who called his accusers liars, a standing ovation at his first game after his court appearance. The ultimate irony presented in The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven is that the failure to deal with and learn anything from the drug abuse scandal of the mid-1980s made the even bigger and more damaging steroid scandal of the 1990s possible, perhaps even inevitable. Aaron Skirboll has written a fine book and done baseball a great service. Too bad its lessons will most likely resonate only with fans who still hold notions of right and wrong higher than the desire for power, money, celebrity, and instant gratification.

Reviewed by: Mike Shannon (August 14, 2010)