For practical reasons, owners should ban beer in clubhouse

The Kickoff

May 14, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

In the aftermath of the tragic, alcohol-related death of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock, the debate has resurfaced about the propriety of baseball teams providing beer or other alcoholic beverages in the clubhouse or on team charter flights.

This is nothing new. The Los Angeles Dodgers agonized over the issue after young pitcher Bob Welch struggled with alcoholism in the early 1980s.

The then-California Angels banned beer in their clubhouse after troubled pitcher John Candelaria was arrested on charges of drunken driving twice in a month during the 1987 season.

And it goes back a lot further than that. Major league teams have been grappling with alcohol issues for much of the past century, which is evidenced by the widely known fact that two of the sport's greatest heroes - Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle - were notorious party animals.

Never before, however, has there been such an epidemic of high-profile alcohol-related misbehavior in professional sports, which is reflective of both a new-age sensitivity to the evils of driving drunk and the proliferation of media to keep it in the national spotlight.

Against such a backdrop, you would think that the time would be ripe for Major League Baseball to establish a universal policy of alcohol prohibition, but the sport remains terribly - yet understandably - conflicted about the best way to respond to both the Hancock tragedy and fair questions about the responsibility of teams to police the legal behavior of the adults who wear their uniforms.

The St. Louis Cardinals removed alcohol from their clubhouse soon after autopsy results showed that Hancock was intoxicated at the time of the grisly accident that took his life. The Orioles and several other teams either did the same or modified team rules to reduce the risk of players overindulging before getting into their cars.

But the Milwaukee Brewers said last week that they will continue to allow beer in their clubhouses both at home and on the road, and some other clubs also have chosen to keep the issue of personal responsibility, well, personal.

The situation is complicated by the long-standing economic relationship between baseball and the beer industry. It might seem hypocritical for the Brewers to ban beer in the clubhouse of a stadium that is named after a major brewer, though the Cardinals were compelled to do just that in the wake of such a horrendous tragedy.

There are all sorts of philosophical arguments to support both sides of this issue, but if it were up to me, I'd kick all of them to the curb in favor of the most pragmatic approach.

I'm neither a teetotaler nor a moralist, but I have to think that if I owned a professional sports team, I would err on the side of my own self-interest and tell the players to get their beer somewhere else.

In a society that has become so litigious that a woman once won compensation from McDonald's for dumping hot coffee on herself, the liability risk inherent in providing free beer to anyone is too great to justify continuing the practice.

Don't misunderstand. I believe that every adult is responsible for his or her own behavior and I wish we lived in a world where people always used good judgment and never put others at risk.

I don't think the government should ban alcoholic beverages, but I do believe that private companies have the right to protect themselves and the responsibility to promote a workplace environment that does not encourage dangerous behavior.

Banning alcohol in the clubhouse and on team flights is one way for baseball teams to do both, but it isn't the only way. Major League Baseball could also take a page from the playbook of new NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and work to create a tough new disciplinary paradigm that serves as a real deterrent to alcohol-related misconduct.

The Major League Baseball Players Association might tell you that there already is a system in place to deal with this kind of thing, but Sidney Ponson had three DUI arrests during his Orioles career and he's still got a pretty good chance to recoup about $10 million in guaranteed salary that was withheld by the club when it invoked a behavior clause to void his contract.

The only thing good to come out of the Hancock tragedy is the enhanced awareness of the dangers of drunken driving, but it remains to be seen whether Major League Baseball is really serious about attacking the problem.

I remember how the Angels moved quickly to ban alcohol in their clubhouse and on team charter flights after Candelaria - wracked with grief over the pool accident that claimed his young son - was arrested twice on charges of drunken driving.

Guess that makes it interesting that the Angels announced last week that they would not join the growing list of teams that have removed beer from their clubhouses since Hancock's death.

Baseball - as well as the society at large - has long had mixed feelings about alcohol. Why should things be any different now?

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays and Sundays.

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