Ties to beer put baseball in knotty moral position


May 10, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

An Oriole makes the third out of an inning, Jon Miller throws it to commercial, and a voice -- a smooth, calming, friendly but authoritative, announcer's school-type voice -- delivers what is nothing less than a paean to beer. Our founding fathers loved the stuff, we're told. George Washington had his own recipe. Colonials served it at Thanksgiving dinner, and today beer is served regularly in 80 million homes. And, it's to be used by "responsible adults." The message, the voice intones, is brought to you by Anheuser-Busch.

No one can be surprised by a beer commercial during a ballgame. The pop of a top is at least as familiar a sound as the crack of the bat. You can't turn on a game without seeing Bob Uecker escorted to the front row or being treated to a bunch of construction workers loading up after a hard day under their hard hats.

According to those who should know, the beer industry spends around $800 million a year on advertising, much of that sponsoring sports events. The Center for Science in the Public Interest says the average child will see as many as 100,000 televised beer commercials by the time he or she can legally order that first drink.

There are other numbers worth noting. For example, the voice on the radio, which seemed to suggest that beer was the bedrock upon which our nation was built, forgot to mention one beer-related statistic -- that, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, 22,415 Americans are expected to be killed by drunken drivers this year.

Drunken driving is in the news again. This happens from time to time, as when a famous baseball player drives his car into a tree, injuring himself and a teammate. Or when a famous diver drives his car into a crowd of kids, killing some of them. Or when a famous jockey is paralyzed after driving his car over the side of the hill. (For you irony fans: Following his accident, Willie Shoemaker, the jockey in question, was dropped by Early Times bourbon as its spokesman.)

The usual cries go up. They're heard. And they're ignored. You want to know how ignored? Two days after Len Dykstra smashed into a tree Monday, Cedric Figaro, an Indianapolis Colts linebacker, was charged with drunken driving when police found him asleep at the wheel. He was the sixth Colt or former Colt to have been arrested for driving drunk in less than two years.

We hear the cries, but where we don't hear them from is the office of the commissioner of baseball.

This, too, is not surprising, not when you consider all the advertising dollars that beer companies pour into baseball.

And so, when commissioner Fay Vincent is asked about Dykstra, he says only that he hopes his recovery is quick and complete. What he doesn't say is that drunken driving kills thousands of our citizens and that baseball has a responsibility to take a strong stand, as it does with other drugs.

Yes, other drugs. Alcohol is a drug. Ask any doctor. The difference between alcohol and other drugs isthat alcohol is legal. And, in fact, when I talked to a baseball spokesman about the commissioner's lack of response, he said that alcohol was legal, so what could the commissioner do? But, drunken driving is not legal. It's a crime, and, compounding the crime is that baseball continues to wink at it.

What it looks like is that baseball is caving in to the beer industry.

That's what Christine Lubinski, director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, was quoted as saying the other day.

"The Medellin drug cartel is not a major sponsor, but beer is," Lubinski said. "Any reticence of major-league teams to deal with nTC alcoholism among players is tied to not giving beer a bad name."

For many who attend games, beer has a bad name nonetheless. We've all sat next to drunken, abusive fans. And we can only imagine theircondition when they drive home.

There are some sports teams concerned by this problem. At many stadiums, they cut off beer sales during the late innings, giving people time to sober up. The Orioles have a program whereby an inebriated customer can get a free ride home. At many stadiums, in what is thought to be agreat sacrifice, they no longer sell the 80-ounce cups of beer.

But most teams still hand out beer in the clubhouse after a game to the players. I've seen players grab six-packs for the ride home, which amounts to an abject failure of responsibility. Beer is also served in the press box, and I've seen abuses there, too.

Since baseball, and other sports, are so willing to be identified with beer, the people involved have a special responsibility. They, remember, are in the business of encouraging people to drink. They are saying, in effect, that alcohol is as wholesome as baseball is supposed to be.

Whoever listens or doesn't listen, baseball must be clear that drunken driving is dangerous and wrong. What's sadly missing from the commissioner in the Dykstra case is outrage or, given the absence of a program to confront the problem of drunken driving, anything that could pass for real compassion.

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