"The account is fascinating . . . throws harsh light on Major League Baseball's ongoing failure to police itself." —Booklist
Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven: How a Ragtag Group of Fans Took the Fall for Major League Baseballby Aaron Skirboll
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Eerily prescient of times to come, this exposé examines drug use in Major League Baseball (MLB) during the mid-1980s and one of the biggest drug trials in baseball history. Through a series of exclusive interviews with FBI agents, U.S. attorneys, defense lawyers, journalists, former baseball executives, physicians, and the dealers themselves, the narrative provides a behind-the-scenes look into how the players managed their habits, the effect of the drugs on their athletic performance, and the ruses the players concocted to keep their drug consumption from becoming public knowledge. Among the all-stars implicated as cocaine users were Joaquin Andujar, Dusty Baker, Dale Berra, Keith Hernandez, Lee Mazzilli, John Milner, Dave Parker, and Lonnie Smith, while Willie Mays and Willie Stargell were fingered as amphetamine users. In addition to identifying the players involved, this account reveals how the hapless group of mostly diehard Pittsburgh Pirates fans got into cocaine and connected with the players as well as the often comic “deals” that eventually got them busted. Then MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth's failure to implement a strict drug policy in the aftermath of the trial is also discussed, along with the role this inaction played in enabling the steroid era.
"The account is fascinating . . . throws harsh light on Major League Baseball's ongoing failure to police itself." —Booklist
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The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven
How a Ragtag Group of Fans Took the Fall for Major League Baseball
By Aaron Skirboll
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2010 Aaron Skirboll
All rights reserved.
When I put on my uniform, I feel like I am the proudest man on earth.
— Roberto Clemente
It was just an innocent tryout. Certainly no lives would be altered. Granted, the tryout was for a major league baseball team, but it was not for an actual jersey and a number but rather for the position of mascot. The guys would give it a shot, have a couple of laughs, and leave it at that. At least that's what they thought.
It was a miserable cold and rainy February afternoon. At a bare minimum, they figured, they would be afforded a behind-the-scenes look at Three Rivers Stadium, and to these die-hard Pittsburgh guys, this was no small thing. Three Rivers was where their heroes came to ply their trade. The Pittsburgh Pirates were four-time world champions, with the last one secured in 1971. They had won the National League East in 1972, 1974, and 1975, and were firmly established as one of the class teams in major league baseball. Mazeroski, Clemente, Stargell: these weren't just names to these young men, these were legends of the sport and revered figures in the history of their hometown team. That's all these guys were thinking about when they showed up at the stadium.
Twenty-seven-year-old Dale Shiffman and twenty-five-year-old Kevin Koch (pronounced coke) were best friends. Both grew up and went to high school in Baldwin, Pennsylvania, a working-class suburb about ten miles south of Pittsburgh. After graduation they entered the military, where they served in the army. Shiffman served a tour in Vietnam, but the war ended just after Koch finished boot camp. In 1979 both were still bouncing around the South Hills suburbs and spending a good deal of time together as teammates on a local softball team named the High Rollers. They played in a highly competitive citywide league. It wasn't what they had envisioned while growing up. Koch, with his cannon of a right arm, had been scouted by both the Reds and the Pirates while he was in high school. The Pirates put him in uniform once in 1975 and had him pitch batting practice to the team in order to take a better look at him. However, three years in the military made it tough for him to reach his goal of playing in the majors.
By 1979 it was clear the softball league was as far as Koch's talents could take him. He and his pal Shiffman played as much as they could, often three or four times a week, practically year round, with Shiffman sometimes playing on as many as five teams in a given summer. They even took road trips from time to time, with teammates piling into one another's cars and heading to out-of-town tournaments. Shiffman was the pitcher, while Koch roamed the outfield.
The advertisements that played on the radio that winter for the Pittsburgh Pirates mascot auditions were vague. The candidate had to be at least five feet eight inches tall; other than that, however, no official requirements were given. As new Pirates director of promotions Steve Schanwald less than succinctly put it, "It has to be someone who ... well, the way I'd put it, who's slightly insane. That's the guy we're looking for — the guy or gal."
Kevin Koch never heard the ads, but one of his friends, Yamie Liebro, did, and he had instantly thought of Koch. Liebro felt his funny, baseball-loving pal would be perfect for the position, so much so that he called the Pirates front office and announced, "I've got your guy." He then phoned Koch to fill him in on the good news: Liebro had signed Koch up for the upcoming Pirate Parrot auditions. Koch's initial reaction: "C'mon?"
Koch had recently finished welding school at Dean Tech on Liberty Avenue and was set to begin his first job in the coming weeks. Nonetheless, on Friday, February 23, the day of the tryout, Koch thought, "Why not?" If only as a practical joke, he would do it. Shiffman and Liebro would be tagging along to the audition, and the three friends had a long history of turning anything they did into a good time, Koch reasoned. Plus, it was being held at the stadium.
Sports were all people were talking about in Pittsburgh at the time. The city and its teams were quickly climbing to the top of the sports world. The Steelers had just secured their third Super Bowl title in five years, and the Pirates, coming off consecutive second-place finishes, felt they were well poised to join the Steelers on top. Dominance in sports was something the city had never known before, and to its credit Pittsburgh wore this championship glow well. The steelworkers and other blue-collar employees around the region relished it. Up and down the muddy rivers leading into the Steel City, small coal towns were decked out in black and gold.
Koch held no illusions of actually winning the audition. When the trio arrived at the stadium, they were greeted by what one local paper described as "several dozen unemployed actors, frustrated entertainers, singers-in-the-shower, publicity seekers, and almost certifiably crazy baseball fans." Nearly one hundred of them were ushered into the visiting team's clubhouse to show team officials what they would do to fire up a crowd of baseball fans.
Liebro decided that with so many other Parrot hopefuls on hand, Koch needed to do something to set himself apart from the crowd. When the time came for Koch's five-minute audition, Liebro went into a song and dance portraying himself as Koch's agent. Shiffman, a freelance photographer, happened to have his camera on hand and was thrust into the role of parrot-chasing paparazzo, furtively snapping shots of the amused Koch. The judges, a three-person team of Schanwald, his secretary, Ellen Campbell, and Olin DePolo, the Pirates' director of sales and marketing, then asked a few questions of the candidate. Koch, who was a top-notch dancer, then danced along to a short disco song. The judges were impressed. But at the end of the day, Koch may have been more surprised than anyone when he was told he was one of ten finalists and asked to return on March 12. Koch, who had been treating the whole thing as a joke, was beginning to get a little worried.
At the second tryout Koch again wowed the judges, not only with his dancing skills but also with his keen sports knowledge and sense of humor, particularly his impressions of local celebrities. When the second audition was complete, he was told the Pirates would give him a call when they had reached a decision.
A few days passed before the telephone rang. When Koch was informed that he had won the job of first-ever Pirate Parrot, he was far from elated. He knew his hometown well, and while the tryouts had provided laughs and been a good time for him and his buddies, he was also well aware that steel-tough Pittsburghers had a long history of not taking well to frilly mascots and cheerleaders. None of Pittsburgh's professional sports teams employed them at the time. But that was exactly what Koch now was — a mascot. His reward was a pair of bright green tights and an oversized cotton bird's head, not to mention a salary of twenty-five dollars per game.
* * *
Once Koch shook off the initial shock, he decided to make the most of his new job. It was no use second-guessing things now. Not that there was time for it anyway. Almost immediately after accepting, Koch received a call from Pirates' owner Dan Galbreath telling him to pack a bag — he was going to spring training. The club wanted him to get his feet wet in an exhibition game before his big debut and the regular season.
Koch would be the first to admit that he had spent his fair share of time picturing himself as a Pirate when he was a youngster and probably even a tad too much as an adult. But as he flew to Bradenton, Florida, on Galbreath's private Learjet, he realized this was something else entirely. What was this kid off the streets of Pittsburgh doing sitting shotgun in the personal jet of the owner of the Pirates? Things got even more surreal for Koch when he arrived at McKechnie Field and suited up. Before he had a chance to catch his breath, he found himself standing in the outfield, face-to-face with the two biggest Bucs of them all: team captain Willie Stargell and right fielder Dave Parker.
"Man, I'm really nervous," Koch told the pair as he stared into the stands. "This is crazy — I wasn't expecting this."
Parker and Stargell laughed at the excited new Pirate and told him, "Wait until opening day," when the attendance would be close to fifty thousand and ten times the tiny crowd on hand in Bradenton. Koch snapped out of it. He wasn't ready to think about any of that. He was going to enjoy the moment. "I felt like I had died and gone to heaven," he recalled. The scene on McKechnie Field resembled a painting that had come to life. Players were languidly stretching and tossing warm-up balls on plush, verdant grass amid swaying palm trees, floating seagulls, and a cloudless blue sky. And there in the middle of it was Koch, shooting the shit in the outfield with Stargell and Parker. He hardly dared to think it, but had he actually gained entrance into this circle? This was the team he had always loved and cheered for but as an outsider looking in. Now he was a part of it.CHAPTER 2
It is supposed to be fun. The man says "play ball," not "work ball." You only have a few years to play this game, and you can't play it if you're all tied up in knots.
— Willie Stargell
As the 1979 season got under way, Kevin Koch concentrated on controlling his nerves and working out a routine. He had to walk a fine line, however, ensuring this routine was well-choreographed but did not become stale. The key was to keep things fresh. His antics were entirely up to him; the Pirates management gave him no instructions. The young welder was essentially being asked to put on a nightly improv show.
Koch hit it off right away with a lot of the players. He had his own quarters in which to change and shower, but he spent a lot of time in the clubhouse with the guys, who accepted the new addition to the team. "They looked at me, and if I was going to be there," says Koch, "then I was a part of their deal." Koch saw a close, tight-knit team that was all business on the field but a loose group of practical jokers off it.
The Pirates took a cue from the city in which they played. From the nineteenth century with iron, brass, tin, and glass, through World War II and into the early seventies with steel and coal, Pittsburgh was a city known for its production. Industry thrived, and as a result the city was at one time so enveloped in dirt and black clouds from the mills that the sun was obscured, forcing drivers to turn on their car headlights upon approaching the downtown area each morning. Pittsburgh Steelers patriarch Art Rooney, who lived his entire eighty-seven years in Pittsburgh, once said, "In the old days the lights never went out. We'd leave for school in the morning with clean clothes and get there covered with soot." The people of the city grew up with a hardened exterior and a fierce work ethic. The professional sports teams of the area followed suit. "We're a blue-collar team in a blue-collar town ... a dirty-shirt ball club," manager Chuck Tanner said of his Pirates. Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw echoed Tanner's sentiments when he called Pittsburgh "a shot and a beer town" and Pittsburghers "good, honest working people" who "lead a tough life" and "like a team with a tough defense, because that's where character shows."
Despite playing in a town once described as "hell with the lid taken off," players from around the country came to Pittsburgh and adopted the city as their own. Willie Stargell, who grew up in the East Bay of Northern California, moved to Pittsburgh permanently in 1969. "I like the warmth of the place," Stargell said. The citizens of Pittsburgh like to think of their city as one big small town where everyone knows and talks with one another. Pirates pitcher Jim Rooker, from Oregon, eventually made the city his permanent home and opened up his own restaurant, Rook's, in the area. Rooker sums up the city's attraction plainly: "It may not be the prettiest city, but it's a city you grow to love because of the people."
Native son Chuck Tanner, from nearby New Castle, was brought in to manage the club in 1977. Tanner came to the team via a rare trade involving a manager. The trade partner was the Oakland A's and their unorthodox owner, Charlie Finley. Anything was possible with Finley. This was, after all, the same man who once named a live mule after himself — Charlie O — and debuted the animal as the team's new mascot. He even took it along to cocktail parties with him. Finley also introduced ball girls to the league, paid his players $300 apiece to grow mustaches as part of a "Mustache Day" promotion, and unsuccessfully attempted to replace the game's white baseballs with orange ones. Trading a manager was considered a mild move for Charlie Finley. The A's received catcher Manny Sanguillen and $100,000 cash in the exchange.
Tanner was a fatherly and down-to-earth manager. His philosophy toward his craft was simple: get the players to relax and enjoy the game, and the physical talents that allowed the young athletes to reach the majors and the pinnacle of their sport in the first place would shine. In other words, let them play and have just as much fun as they did growing up. As he told the New Yorker in 1979, he saw too many of his new recruits "look around and suddenly baseball becomes a job for them." He felt the true work of the manager was "to reach the kid who's sitting over in the corner of the dugout and get him to play with the same attitude he had back in American Legion ball."
Off the field or in the clubhouse, Tanner was known as someone who liked to keep one eye open and one eye closed with respect to his club. He tried to not even mention the word "curfew." Outsiders couldn't understand his hands-off approach. His explanation: "Paul Waner used to wander into the lobby at 1:00 A.M., and Babe Ruth always managed to find a little spot to have some fun, and I think if somebody had slapped a curfew on them, there might be two empty spaces in the Hall of Fame today. ... You have to handle people like they are men. You try and be nice."
The team's expectations for the 1979 season were the same as every year; it was looking for a championship. Tanner told the baseball world, "We can win it. ... This is the most relaxed team in baseball, not worried about yesterday or tomorrow, just right now."
The Pirates always seemed to be in the hunt. But, as Sports Illustrated predicted in its special baseball issue as the season opened, the team would need to overcome "age, injury, and giveaway defense" to get past the Philadelphia Phillies, who were on the verge of their fourth consecutive National League East title. Epitomizing the age factor was eighteen-year veteran Willie Stargell. While it was possible that young slugger Dave Parker could repeat his MVP award–winning 1978 season, expectations were not as high for the thirty-eight-year-old Stargell. Counted out following his injury-prone 1977 campaign, Stargell surprised everyone with a stellar twenty-eight home run, ninety-seven RBI season in 1978 to pick up the National League Comeback Player of the Year award. Still, it was unclear how long the first baseman could continue to carry the team. Such uncertainty assuredly came from outside the Steel City, however; for inside the Pirates clubhouse, if it was Tanner who directed the ship, it was Stargell who was the unquestioned leader of the team.
Stargell was a man of prodigious power, known for his signature windmill twirling of the bat as he awaited the pitch from inside the batter's box, his very own stepless swagger. His towering upper-deck shots in stadiums around the league were the stuff of legend. In 1978 he hit a ball so far into the seats at Montreal's Olympic Stadium the Expos had the seat where it landed painted gold to commemorate the monster 535-foot shot. He was also the first man to hit a ball out of Dodger Stadium, which he did twice (a feat achieved since only by Mike Piazza and Mark McGwire, one time apiece). Dodger pitching great Don Sutton once said of Stargell, "He didn't just hit pitchers, he took away their dignity." Stargell had more home runs from 1970 to 1979 than any other player in the major leagues.
Along with Stargell the 1979 Pirates had right fielder Dave Parker, who was reaching his peak and coming into his own as a player. Parker was a rare talent and no slouch in the power department himself; he once literally knocked the cover off a ball with a strapping base hit to right field that ruptured the seams.
But even with these two sluggers in the middle of the lineup, this wasn't the same "lumber company" of power hitters the city had grown to know in the mid-1970s, when players like Richie Zisk, Al Oliver, and Richie Hebner joined Stargell to hit blast after blast, up and down the lineup, to lead the league in home runs. This new Chuck Tanner–led squad became a more balanced team, with speedy center fielder Omar Moreno providing the spark at the top of a lineup that lived up to its new moniker of Lumber and Lightning, which appeared across the Three Rivers Stadium scoreboard during the home team's rallies. It was a team just as likely to win a game with the hit-and-run and the bunt as with the long ball.
Excerpted from The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven by Aaron Skirboll. Copyright © 2010 Aaron Skirboll. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Meet the Author
Aaron Skirboll is a writer. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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This is a story that needs to be told. Aaron Skirboll did a great job in naming names and in describing how a handful of "local yokels" took the fall for the players and Major League Baseball! Although the "seven" were portrayed as big time drug dealers, this was not really the case! They were just caught up in "partying with some local celebrities." Most of the City of Pittsburgh already knew this back in 1985 as the details and the plea bargains took place. HBO also took a swipe at this in 2006 on Bryant Gumbles "Real Sports" show, but this book goes much deeper. Great job, good read.
This was a very interesting book to read.It covered baseballs first drug scandal in the early 80's.The author brought back memories of a time in baseball that is rarely discussed anymore.The book also covers more in depth the non celebrities in the case,the group of friends who wound up providing most of the cocaine that went to the players in Pittsburgh.