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IN THE COACH'S BOX
The Straw Man
by Stephen Lehman
At 10:10 p.m. on April 14 of this year, Darryl Strawberry, baseball star,
cancer patient, husband, and recovering drug addict, was arrested in Tampa,
Florida. He was charged with possession of three-tenths of a gram of cocaine
and soliciting a female undercover officer posing as a prostitute. On May
26, Strawberry pleaded no contest to the charges and was sentenced to eighteen
months probation, during which he will be tested for drugs twice a week.
At this writing, he is still on the disabled list from the Yankees as a
result of his surgery for colon cancer earlier in the year; he was placed
on an indeterminate "administrative leave" by Major League Baseball
following his arrest, though no one seems to know what that meansMLB
had no such thing as "administrative leave" until this incident.
It is uncertain how the team or the American League will deal with him long-term
as a multiple offender of Major League Baseballs drug aftercare program.
Speculation is that hell receive a ninety-day suspension, his second
for a drug offense. The first, for sixty days, came after he tested positive
for cocaine in 1995.
How is the average baseball fan supposed to take this latest chapter in
the Strawberry saga? Is Strawberry deserving of our pity? Our condemnation?
Or should we just ignore him and hope he goes away? (After all, hes
thirty-seven years old; hes had cancer; hes abused drugs. How
long can his mind and body realistically hold up in the highly competitive
arena of Major League Baseball?) Id like to suggest "none of
the above." Id like to suggest that our best bet is to try to
understand what may have happened.
Its a funny word, "understanding," a dirty word these days
in some quarters. Websters Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary defines
it as "a mental grasp . . . the capacity to apprehend general relations
of particulars . . . the power to make experience intelligible." What
its come to mean in the post-politically correct world, however, is
"a way of making excuses for people who dont deserve them."
While I am a firm believer in the concept of personal responsibility, Id
like to suggest that this latter, zero-tolerance redefinition of understanding
is a dangerous ideological corruption. I suggest this because I believe,
as a friend once put it, that what you dont know can hurt you. Understanding
is, first and foremost, about knowledge, and therefore more about the observers
approach to the world than a judgment on that which is observed. Its
about increasing ones "capacity to apprehend general relations
of particulars." Its about "the power to make experience
So how do we begin to understand Strawberrys latest transgressions?
What can we learn from them? Although we dont know yet whether Strawberry
tested positive for cocaine use following his arrest (where theres
smoke, theres often fire, but not always), we must wonder why someone
would jeopardize both a promising career comeback (from multiple off-the-field
problems) and a physical comeback (from cancer) for a quick high, chemical
and/or sexual. How does this make sense?
The answer is, it doesnt make senseunless you view it in the
context of the nature of addiction.
While I grant that the notion isnt universally accepted, the fact
is that the overwhelming majority of medical and mental health professionals
and organizations now believe that drug and alcohol addiction is a disease.
As such, addiction is not the result of a lack of character or weak will
or moral degeneracy. Addiction is both a mental and physical disease, an
obsession of the mind and a craving of the body that play off one another.
Thus, for the addict, once the chemical is introduced into the body, a chain
reaction begins wherein the mind seeks to reproduce endlessly the initial
ecstatic experience while the body powerfully reinforces that obsession
with intense relief-seeking messages, messages that threaten imminent consequences
ranging from mild discomfort to excruciating pain. These are sometimes referred
to as withdrawal symptoms. While addiction is a disease that can be treated
and brought into remission, it cannot, apparently, be cured.
To understand the case of Darryl Strawberry, I believe one first needs
to accept these fundamental facts: 1) that addiction is a chronic relapsing
illness that, untreated, usually progresses to the patients untimely
death, and 2) that Darryl Strawberry is an addict. How does this help us
understand Strawberrys arrest in April? Because of something called
Cross-addiction is the idea that anyone addicted to one mood-altering substance
is, for all intents and purposes, addicted to all mood-altering substances.
Addicts may have strong preferences for how one drug makes them feel over
how another affects their sense of physical and mental well-being, but the
addicts brain doesnt really care what gets the dopamine flowing.
Thus, when a heroin addict smokes pot, for example, the brain reacts pretty
much the same way it would with heroin and initiates the same inexorable
descent into the cycle of physical craving and mental obsession. Over time,
the addict trying to get high with a new, presumably safe drug usually ends
up either addicted to the new drug or, as is more likely the case, back
using the original drug of choice.
A friend of mine, a competitive long-distance runner and recovering alcoholic,
had ten years of sobriety when she was struck by a car while out running
and seriously injured. She was sent home from the hospital to begin her
rehabilitation with narcotic painkillers. All she had to do was use them
as directed, and she would have been all right, isnt that so? After
all, they were prescribed by a doctor. How could they hurt her? Unfortunately,
thats not how the neurochemistry of addiction works. Within a short
time she was abusing narcotics. Soon, she was using alcohol again. Fortunately,
another round of chemical dependency treatment brought her back into remission,
and she is sober once again.
Now I dont know how closely Strawberrys medications were monitored
following his surgery, so it would be irresponsible to accuse his physicians
of not taking into account that fact that he is a drug addict in prescribing
them. But the truth is, as my friends story shows, many doctors dont
know much about addiction; many dont realize how easily prescription
medications can lead an addict into relapse. Many of them dont understand
Neither do many people in Major League Baseball. Several years ago, Steve
Howe was with the Twins making one of his several comebacks from cocaine
addiction. He seemed to be doing pretty well, pitching decently, staying
out of trouble. Then, on a trip to Detroit, he went AWOL. They found him
three days later in full drug relapse. The Twins players expressed surprise;
no one saw it coming. He seemed to be doing so well. One player, I remember,
was particularly shocked. He said Howe seemed in great spirits, determined
to make it. Howe was just one of the fellows, this Twins player said, a
normal guy who supported the other players in the clubhouse and would even
go out with them after the game for a beer. Anyone else see whats
wrong with this picture?
None of this absolves Strawberry in any way. Even if his claims are true,
that he only meant to joke with the undercover policewoman, that the twenty
dollar bill with the cocaine belonged to someone else, what was he doing
hanging out with someone who had cocaine? What was he doing in a place frequented
by prostitutes? Diabetics are responsible for taking their insulin; hypertensives
are responsible for eating right and remembering to take their medications
as well. An addict is responsible for going to meetings, working a program,
and hanging with sober people. If he doesnt, he doesnt have
much of a chance of keeping his disease in remission. I dont care
if this particular addict can still hit 400 foot home runs in the big leagues;
I dont care if hes a superstar or a millionaire. His money and
his ego arent going to save him. Baseball isnt going to save
him. Alcoholics Anonymous, the "Big Book" of AA, calls alcohol
"cunning, baffling, and powerful." One may be certain that cocaine
is, for those dependent on it, no less formidable an adversary.
Psychologist James Garbarino, in his recent book about violent children,
Lost Boys, writes: "We are willing to [punish violent boys] but not
to understand them. Perhaps we feel that understanding them is unnecessary
because punishment is the only issue, or perhaps we feel that an attempt
to understand them is dangerous because it might excuse their actions."
On the one side is the "simple moralism" of an eye for an eye.
On the other, "an impulse to understand and, if understanding is possible,
to rescue." Garbarino stands with the latter. So do I.
Ultimately, it doesnt matter what Major League Baseball decides to
do: ban Strawberry for life, suspend him for a long period of time, slap
him on the wrist, look the other way. Whatever punishment Strawberry receives
isnt going to deter anyone from following his path, and it isnt
going to save him. But understanding the nature of drug addiction and then
seeing clearly how it has played out so disastrously in Strawberrys
life just might help others. And as for the man himself, understanding the
truth about his own addiction will be particularly crucial in the months
and years ahead. It may determine whether he lives or dies. EFQ
STEPHEN LEHMAN is editor of Elysian Fields Quarterly.
This column first appeared in EFQ 16:3, Summer
© 1999 Stephen Lehman
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