How baseball's drug connection surfaced with the Pirates

"The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven," by Aaron Skirboll. Chicago Review Press, $22.95.

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As the 1980s dawned, Robin Williams proclaimed, "Cocaine is God's way of saying you make too much money." That was funny.

By 1988, baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth was saying his sport's drug program was "the best program of any sport, amateur or professional, anywhere in the world" and that "the era of scandals in baseball is over."

That's proven to be even funnier. "The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven" takes us back to the 1985 drug trials in Pittsburgh that rocked the sport, tarnished the reputation of star players and then sputtered into lip service and double talk that left baseball wide open for a sequel.

The 1985 fiasco was a bridge from the 1919 Black Sox scandal, when the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series, to the steroid scandals of recent years, Aaron Skirboll says.

"Cocaine should have saved the league from steroids," he says, and then lays out how baseball's barons, players and union leaders dropped the ball and left "the door ajar for future scandals."

'Twas a bizarre combination of innocence and deceit that brought the white powder and the Pirates together. Enormous piles of money were in the hands of athletes with the judgment of adolescents, and Pittsburgh's fawning fans and hangers-on were all too willing to provide the nose candy to get close.

As the book reminds us -- and punches home in its subtitle ("How a Group of Fans Took the Fall for Major League Baseball") -- the men imprisoned after this trial weren't the players. They were the short-ball hitters who supplied them.

That may be the nature of the beast. Dealing is a more serious crime than possession, and so U.S. Attorney J. Alan Johnson didn't go after the players but rather a heating- and-air-conditioning guy, a cook, the Pirate Parrot and others who had been supplying the powder (and not making much money in the process).

The book shows how the Parrot, Kevin Koch, defied all zoological laws and turned stool pigeon when he felt he had no other choice. His reconciliation years later with high school buddy and fellow supplier Dale Shiffman, who became a devout Christian during his 22 months in prison, is among the brighter moments in an otherwise sad tale.

The snorting ballplayers -- Dale Berra, Dave Parker, Rod Scurry, Keith Hernandez and many others -- don't come off well, of course. Getting their drugs became more important than the games they were being paid to play.

The scandal may have cost Mr. Parker election to the Hall of Fame, and cocaine ultimately cost Mr. Scurry his life. He died a drug-related death at 36, leaving a widow with two small children.

At the sentencing of one of the "Cocaine Seven," federal Judge Maurice B. Cohill used the phrase "managerial sloth" to describe baseball's apathy in the face of obvious drug use.

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney James Ross said prosecutors thought then that "if we did this right, baseball would clean up its act.''

But performance-enhancing drugs became endemic in baseball and other sports soon enough. The only progress was that steroids made players better while cocaine had made them worse.

"Different drugs, different athletes, but the same modus operandi -- let's just keep it quiet," Mr. Ross said.

Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.


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