It looks as though MLB is going to start testing for opioid use. Indeed, they’ve openly said as much, and the MLBPA has indicated that they’re open to the discussion, too, so I think we can safely say that it’s going to happen. On that basis, I thought I’d write a few gags* about this hilarious topic and we can all yuk it up for a few minutes.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock or are, like me, Australian, you’ll know why this topic is being addressed: Angels’ pitcher Tyler Skaggs choked to death on his own vomit having ingested two different opioids (oxycodone and fentanyl) and alcohol. Whether or not the opioids were, in and of themselves, an “overdose” isn’t clear, and therein lies the rub: opioids and alcohol are a very, very dangerous combination. They’re both depressants and when combined they can slow the body’s functions so severely as to be fatal. This is dangerous for people who know they’re taking opioids, obviously, but is very, very dangerous for people who don’t know they’re taking opioids and think they’re taking some other kind of painkiller.
So, at first glance, it would appear to be a good thing that MLB and the MLBPA are looking to fix this. The early indications are that the consequences of a failed test will, at least in the first instance, be compulsory treatment, rather than a suspension per se. Players who are taking opioids can get help and, assuming for a moment that they are dealing with an addiction, can be supported in dealing with that. High fives all round, well done Rob Manfred, hero of the people.
Except, and I think you could probably see this coming, there’s a but. In fact, there are a couple of buts. Quite big buts, I cannot lie.
Firstly, it’s not like we’re talking about greenies, here. Players took greenies because, sure, it’s a long season and you play a lot of games… but even more so, they took them because it’s a long night and there are a lot of bars. Players were legendary for burning the candle at both ends – it became part of their mystique, their attraction. Mickey Mantle*! Babe Ruth! Anybody who played for the Mets in the 80’s! They were very, very often taking greenies (okay, maybe not Ruth) simply because a lot of the time they couldn’t find their way out to the plate without them.
With opioids, what we’re talking about is something that people take because they’re in pain, be it physical, or maybe even mental. What we’re talking about is something that isn’t enhancing performance, exactly, as much as it is just allowing ballplayers to do all the things they’re under so much duress to do: man up, grit your teeth, play hurt, play through pain… whilst keeping the physical and mental cost of all that rampant masculinity to a bearable level. Players at the highest level are under enormous pressure, mostly from you and me. Is it any wonder they’re finding ways to help themselves deal with it?
And if somebody does test positive? What then? Players who test positive for steroids or HGH are cheats – nice and simple. Anybody who has ever had to listen to A-Rod talk for more than a few seconds can hardly have a problem with PED-abusers getting whatever’s coming to them, right? But what about guys who are drug addicts? It’s hard to see how this testing regime is going to work without having to name and, whether you like it or not, shame people. You know that colleague you have who goes home and drinks a bottle of Scotch every night to cope with who knows what and yet still comes into work every day and does the job? Imagine that colleague being called out for being an alcoholic in front of everybody they know? If you’re pretending to be doing this for the good of the players, you have to figure out a way of policing and – more importantly – enforcing it privately, not publicly. And how do you do that when absolutely everything these men do is as public as can be?
And that, I think, is my real point. I don’t believe that MLB has the players’ best interests at heart. At this point, I wonder if even the MLBPA has the players’ best interests at heart. Why? Well, mostly because MLB has shown time and time again that it doesn’t give a flying fuck about anything except the profits of the owners. But also because the details coming out of the Angels’ clubhouse after Skaggs’ death have made it clear that this has been an issue for years and neither of those organisations has lifted a finger to do anything about it.
But now, you see, a man is dead, and fingers are being pointed, and anybody can make a mistake once but can you imagine how much money it would cost Major League Baseball if somebody else were to die and they hadn’t been seen to try to do something about it? So they’re huffing, and they’re puffing, and they’re sitting down to figure out what the best way is for them to avoid being sued by the family of the next victim.
My heart goes out to the family and friends of Tyler Skaggs, and indeed, to the family and friends of all the hundreds of thousands of victims of the opioid crisis. I dearly hope that any players who are addicted to opioids or even heading down that road get the support they need to save it all ending in tragedy. I dearly hope that MLB and the MLBPA have some cunning plan up their sleeves that will allow them to help people who need help without causing any more pain. And I dearly hope that this is not just an exercise in PR and damage limitation from the powers-that-be.
I’m not expecting to be pleasantly surprised.
*Fine, there weren’t any gags. Sorry, this was a not-very-funny gig. Here’s one for you, though: how many Freudians does it take to change a light boob?
**There’s only one “The Mick”, as far as I’m concerned. You love him, I love him, he’s the greatest player of all time: Mickey Morandini.