During my recent coffee-nursing, noon-wakeup, underwear-only reading of Jeff Passan's work over at Yahoo! Sports -- discussing how teams promote top prospects to their 40-man rosters to shield them from minor league rules on marijuana -- I couldn't help but chuckle.
Not at Passan's writing. He's insightful, and he genuinely seems to care about facts and logic, plus all those other things that make for nostalgic sports writing. No, sir, I tittered at how the solemn representatives of Major League Baseball went on record, saying that they would never promote a player for such a heinous reason as helping the player avoid punishment for criminal behavior.
Hours later, I'm still giggling about it.
Of course, I get why they would say that. I mean, would you expect a big-league club to respond any other way? If they said, "Yeah, if we like the guy, we'll call him up so he can blaze that chronic in peace," heads would explode.
It's far better to paint the picture of a prospect's promotion as part of the natural progression of his career: He was always going to get called up. To say it was anything else would be to condone marijuana use -- which, in case you were wondering, Major League Baseball totally does condone. God, does it ever. One big-league team even had a "green room" where you could toke up while you were at the ballpark. Smokeless tobacco may be the trendy drug lately, but marijuana has its own presence in baseball, and it's growing.
As far back as I can remember, players were getting high. Guys in the minors, on or off the 40-man, would take apples from the locker-room spread, hollow them out and then sneak behind dumpsters and smoke an apple pipe. In Triple-A, the now-defunct Portland Beavers would hide in stadium supply tunnels doing the old puff-puff-pass before jumping a knuckleball fight over the Rocky Mountains. I've even seen coaches toking up with their players.
No one says a word about any of it. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. It all falls under the code: What happens within the team stays within the team. If that weren't the case, a guy could snap pics of another player getting high and turn it in to the organization, in the hopes of expediting his own career over someone else's. Never happens.
It's a long season, and smoking isn't remotely the worst thing ballplayers are capable of doing in their idle time. I'd much rather see a guy baked at the hotel -- giggling hysterically over a rerun of Jackass -- than passed out in a random neighborhood kiddie pool after a night of heavy drinking courtesy of breaking into the stadium beer concessions. (The owner of the kiddie pool was furious!)
The issue here isn't the innate evil of weed, but rather that Major League Baseball once again has made ridiculous rules for minor leaguers, restrictions that don't extend to the majors, creating loopholes and double standards along the way.
Passan's premise was that players actually have an incentive to smoke -- to do any drugs of abuse for that matter -- because, if they're talented enough, they can force the organization's hand on a roster move. A player can threaten to smoke his way to a major setback under minor league rules, if he's not promoted. It sounds crazy, but it's got a lot of merit when you consider how much a top prospect is worth to his club and how much time he stands to miss. (As Passan points out, the minor league penalties include a 100-game suspension for a third offense and a lifetime ban for a fourth.)
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While I was in spring training with the … You know what, I'm not going to tell you. Too many potheads still in action there. Let's just say that while I was in spring training with a certain organization, a group of guys on the team got robbed. They were all staying in a house together, splitting the rent through the course of the spring, their luxury rides all parked out front in a row, leaving at the same time every day. It wasn't hard for the local criminal element to figure out who they were and the schedule they kept. When these criminals decided to hit the house, they made off with all manner of high-end accessories, televisions, gaming systems and other tech toys.
That part was in the news: Pro athletes getting robbed, that's kind of a big story, and the organization didn't try to run from it. The team painted it as a tragic and slightly scary example of what can happen if you show off your wealth without thinking of the ramifications. Live and learn, and next time consider a gated community.
What didn't make the news was the other stuff that got taken. I may have been naive enough to believe the news reports, but then you start to hear things on the locker-to-locker information superhighway. First, one of the guys really liked his firearms and had a couple of automatic assault rifles, including some AK-47s. Next, a large collection of porno DVDs had gone missing. Finally, the pillow-case-sized bag of weed that had been sitting on the kitchen table, next to its accoutrements. All of it gone, none of it reported.
Players who'd visited the house before it was robbed joked about how lucky the victims were to make news without, you know, making news.
Those who were in the know made light of the whole incident, jokingly taking up the role of the folks that broke in: "Holy s---, who lives here, Cheech and Chong? What do these guys do, get high, j--- off and go shoot stuff? I want their job!"
Oddly, when rumors of what else had been stolen started making their way around the locker room, none of us were surprised. Lots of players had at least one of those things in their possession at any given time. Hell, a former teammate of mine actually had his own company called Four Dollar Porn and sold it from his locker! Drugs, porn, guns -- what else is new?
Here's the thing, though. It wasn't just players who told the press about what had been stolen. The organization had helped the players focus their responses on the proper subjects -- that was also floated around the locker room. Most organizations have a guy around to help players navigate tricky social situations, like handling a home-invasion incident without incriminating yourself. Every team knows what financially empowered young men tend to do, when they have a strong union and loose drug enforcement. That club's officials knew what their players were into, because it was in the organization's best interest to know. They made sure the story that went to press was properly filtered for a smooth, painless and timely death.
* * *
Organizations want to protect their image and players, to keep unnecessary drama and criminal activity out of the public eye. They enable, omit and obfuscate, and when they are forced to take a moral stance on something, they do it to the minor leaguers. That sets up a double standard, and that in turn sets up some of your best assets to fail.
That guy who was coring apples into makeshift pipes, he was living with other minor leaguers who didn't enjoy the same level of drug-use protection. Most of his roommates got popped for drug use and had to go on the therapy-and-intervention track or else serve an outright suspension. Meanwhile, the guy who could not get caught shrugged it off and went on his way, back into a cloud of smoke.
Years later, in the minors, I was reunited with an old teammate whom I'd known to be a pothead for years. I was planning a European cruise with a stop in Amsterdam, and I asked him for some tips on how to sample pot. I mean, you can't go to Amsterdam and not try it. He gave me a half hour seminar on the kinds of weed available. The strains, the effects, what kind of atmosphere I want to create for myself before I partake so that I'm not flaking out in a paranoid fit. "Don't start with the purple stuff," he explained. "That will send you places you aren't ready to go yet. Trust me." It was very educational.
Then that guy came off the 40-man roster, and the weed had to come out of his diet. Holy Mother, did his personality change. It definitely had an impact on him and his performance. Quite honestly, I didn't realize just how high he'd been all the time, until I met him when he was low. If clubs feel they have to promote prospects to the big-league roster just so they can smoke without getting suspended, then MLB really needs to change the minor league rules to correspond to the majors. Otherwise, MLB is just saying one thing and doing another. Its moral and ethical stance fails, and clubs end up getting strong-armed by their own pot-aficionado prospects.
There was only one thing in Passan's article that I took exception to. An unnamed source claimed that getting off weed had made him play better, "as if a fog was lifted." I don't know about that. Based on the guys I know who smoked regularly, your mileage under the influence will vary. Some of them were so freaking good baked, I can't imagine how awesome they would've been clean.