Saturday, May 05, 2007

Hancock and alcohol

Last Sunday night, Cardinals relief pitcher Josh Hancock was killed in a car accident, when his SUV slammed into the back of a tow truck stopped on the interstate. The Cardinals cancelled their next game, and all of baseball mourned the loss of someone who seemed to be a really nice guy. It was especially hurtful that the accident hit the Cardinals, who still feel the pain of Darryl Kile's sudden death in 2002.
However, from the beginning there were questions as to whether or not Hancock may have been drinking that night. Lab reports came back that Hancock was indeed drunk at the time of the accident, his blood alcohol of .157 level twice the legal limit of .08. The police also reported the following details:

  • a small amount of marijuana was found in Hancock's SUV. Full toxicology reports aren't back yet, so it's unclear whether Hancock was also under the influence of marijuana.
  • A reconstruction of the accident shows that Hancock did not try to slow down, although he did try to swerve, unsuccessfully, at the last second.
  • Hancock was not wearing his seatbelt, although the report I read said that his injuries likely would have been fatal either way.
  • Hancock was talking on his cell phone at the time of the accident. He was apparently talking to a female friend about arranging tickets to a Cardinals game when the call was suddenly cut off.
All of these circumstances cast a pall over the mourning over Hancock's passing, most of which involved mention of what a great guy and teammate he was, helping the Cardinals to the World Championship last year. The fact that he was intoxicated doesn't mean we shouldn't mourn, nor do I think we should reserve our sympathy for his family and friends. However, it's much more difficult to feel a sense of tragedy for someone who chose to drive under the influence, putting himself and others at a great risk.
Evidently, Hancock had been struggling with a drinking problem recently. In a press conference given after the alcohol reports came down, Tony LaRussa declined to give specifics, but did say that he had a serious heart-to-heart with Hancock a day or two before his death. We can surmise that the discussion centered around Hancock's substance abuse and/or self-destructive behavior. Many have pointed out a potential hypocrisy here, in that LaRussa himself was arrested on a DUI charge during spring training. While that does make it difficult for LaRussa to take the high road, I don't think it renders him incapable of helping his players, nor does it make him a hypocrite for trying to speak to Hancock about his similar problems.
This news, while an embarassment to the Cardinals and to baseball in general, both of whom had already sainted Hancock, has provoked a mild outcry for baseball teams to take a more active role in preventing future tragedies. The Cardinals have already banned alcohol from the clubhouse, but many feel that the league needs to institute a comprehensive alcohol policy to prevent something like this from happening again.
While I sympathize with this desire, I don't think that baseball clubs have the legal right or the practical ability to curb alcoholism at the organizational level. They can make certain small (and politically correct) moves such as banning alcohol in the clubhouse, and while that's a good sign, does anyone actually believe that removing the Budweisers from the postgame spread is going to turn baseball players into teetotalers? If someone has a substance abuse problem, it's very very difficult to stop them from feeding it. It would be best for us to stop pretending that we can keep alcohol away from big-league baseball players and instead try to work through these problems on an individual level.
This idea will not be popular with MLB as a whole, who wants a broad, sweeping anti-alcohol move to make a strong statement and cover their own behinds. But the truth is that the best way to stop people like Josh Hancock from hurting himself or others is through personal, informal interventions. If LaRussa indeed spoke to Hancock with a tough-love warning, that's about the best thing the Cardinals could do.
My suggestion is that rather than institute a mostly irrelevant policy, baseball organizations need to institute a greater sense of awareness and intervention, on the micro and macro level. On the micro level, managers, coaches, and fellow players need to be aware of guys whose party lifestyle starts to become destructive. And instead of reporting him to upper management or taking away his post-game lager, they need to step in on a personal, informal level and offer help.
On the macro level, upper management needs to be aware of potential personnel problems of this sort. They can do this without installing spies or cameras in the locker room. If they simply keep open a healthy line of communication with managers and coaches, this would enable them to offer help to troubled players. This help could be counselling and rehab or sterner measures such as loss of beer privileges in the clubhouse. They also need to be a part of the informal support/awareness system created in the clubhouse itself.

This is a complicated and involved solution, but it's the one that offers the most realistic chance for success. Creating a "liquor policy" may get the league good PR, but I seriously doubt it would be anything but modestly effective. I'm reminded of the oft-told story of country singer/alcoholic George Jones who, when his wife took away his car keys, drove off to the liquor store on his John Deere lawn mower. It's amazingly naive to think that players with addictions and/or substance abuse problems can be prevented from hurting themselves so easily.
What baseball needs to institute is the sort of informal system of awareness and intervention that you would use in any family or professional situtation that faced a similar problem. This won't make any headlines and it won't shut up the talking heads who want official action in the misguided belief that such action will solve the problem. The problems faced by people like Josh Hancock are unfortunately quite familiar in our society, but we can take comfort by learning from the lessons of similar cases. The Cardinals' ban on booze in the home clubhouse (but not the visiting clubhouse) will likely be no more effective than hiding Dad's whiskey in the attic. The real way to see improvement in this situation is by creating a support system of friends, family and teammates that can deal with these problems before someone's life is lost.
That is what baseball really needs to do.

1 comment:

t ball said...

Good ideas, there. Like to hear your thoughts on this article by JC Bradbury, author of Baseball Economist and a blogger at Sabernomics. He suggests letting players dope but fining them all of their winnings if they test positive and redistributing them to players who test clean. Interesting idea. Link: