Remember, athletes are like rest of us

September 19, 1991|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,Philadelphia Inquirer

Each of us, every last fragile, vulnerable, weak, mortal one of us, has a drug of choice.

Sometimes it comes in a bottle. Sometimes in a cellophane packet. Sometimes in a coffee cup.







Something to make the world go away.

Something to fill an emptiness or to numb an ache. Something to get us through the long, lonesome night or to brace us for a new and frightening day. Something we can cling to for aid and comfort.

And every time one of "them" is caught in an addiction, every time one of "them" succumbs, the rest of us always seem so surprised. The reason, of course, is that we make the fundamental mistake of assuming that "them" are different from us when, in fact, they really aren't.

We assume that an arm that can throw a baseball 94 miles per hour or that legs that can run 40 yards in 4.3 seconds automatically are attached to people who don't have human appetites, human frailties, human lapses.

In fact, some .300 hitters like to slug down the Scotch just as much as some insurance salesmen. And some linebackers favor the same hit of nose candy as some mutual-funds brokers.

The latest neon name to blink out is Otis Nixon, outfielder, Atlanta Braves. He tripped over the white lines. Not the ones that divide fair from foul. The ones that furnish the rush away from reality.

How could he throw it all away? Isn't that what we always ask when one of "them" has just squandered money and fame and all that goes with it? And sometimes that is precisely why they have thrown it away -- because of all that goes with it, because all of that is just too much for them to cope with. Too much pressure. Too much suffocation.

"You can feel overwhelmed," testifies Bob Welch, a recovering alcoholic who pitches, often spectacularly, for the Oakland Athletics. "If you feel you don't have control over things, whether xTC it's a baseball game or just living, you begin to waste time and energy worrying. You lose perspective. The future becomes a distraction. And so does the past. I learned, finally, never to look past the next pitch. Or past today."

That is the mantra shared by most rehab clinics and recited, in one form or another, at most Alcoholics Anonymous meetings: Yesterday is gone. Let go of it. Deal with tomorrow tomorrow. Today is all that matters.

Or maybe Otis Nixon went from one white line to another because he needed the rush he got from the competition, from the crowd. Maybe he couldn't handle the comedown when the adrenalin quieted.

"There was a time," said Steve Howe, a one-time drunk and user who now relieves for the New York Yankees, "when I couldn't deal with anything outside of baseball, when I'd leave the park and feel empty, feel this void. Drugs filled that void. Or at least I thought they did. What they were doing, of course, was destroying me. But an addict doesn't want to hear any of that."

Denial is always a big part of it. Often, for an athlete especially, so is the presumption of immunity by reason of exemption. The Superman Syndrome. They always have been able to do things beyond the physical ken of the rest of us, so doesn't it also follow that they can drink without suffering the destructive effects that bedevil mere mortals? Can't their honed bodies absorb -- and then throw off -- heavier pharmaceutical jolts than the body of some wimpy CPA?

"It's easy to get caught up in that kind of thinking," said Darryl Strawberry of the Los Angeles Dodgers. "You have been told all your life that you are special, so it seems logical that the normal rules don't apply to you. You think, 'How can I have a problem? I'm a professional athlete. I'm different. I can get away with it.' Well, we're not any more bulletproof than anyone else."

The common thread that ties together Bob Welch and Steve Howe and Darryl Strawberry is that each is now clean and sober. Welch won 27 and a Cy Young Award last year. Howe is a lock for comeback player of the year. Strawberry, come to life in September, is driving the Dodgers toward a pennant.

Proof that "them" really are like us, capable of causing despair and also causing exultation, that for every Otis Nixon who trips, there is a Welch or a Howe or a Strawberry to rise.

Proof that it's not how you fall down that matters, but how you get up.

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