Should MLB Punish DUIs More Harshly, Like PEDs?

On February 6, Todd Helton was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. A week and a half later, he publicly apologized. His manager, Walt Weiss, who is also his former teammate, stood behind him all the way. “We have all needed a little grace from time to time. He stepped up and faced the music,” Weiss said at a news conference with Helton. “Now it’s time to play ball.” Helton received no further punishment from the league or from his team. Weiss picked a curious metaphor to announce that Helton will miss the first couple of games of spring training to conserve his strength, but would then play as normal. “For a guy like Todd,” Weiss said, “there’s no reason to put your foot on the pedal right out of the gate.”

Helton was not the only one to be quickly forgiven by his team. Mark Grace was arrested outside Phoenix last August, his second DUI arrest in 15 months. The Diamondbacks fired him as an announcer, but this spring, they rehired him as a special instructor. In the wake of Helton and Grace’s arrests, a number of people have been writing articles about the curious disconnect between the way we think about performance-enhancing drugs and the way we think about drunk driving. But is it a fair comparison? After all, PEDs affect baseball on the field. DUIs are off-field offenses, and they are handled by the courts. Should baseball subject its players to additional punishment?

By contrast with its PED policy, Major League Baseball has no clear policy to address and punish alcohol abuse among baseball players. (That policy is collectively bargained; the reason for the lack of policy is that it has not been negotiated.) The word “alcohol” does not appear once in the Joint Drug Agreement, but in 2012, MLB established “a protocol for evaluating and treating players who may suffer from an alcohol use problem.” This is similar to the provisions for treatment for “Drugs of Abuse” as set out in the Joint Drug Agreement, but it lacks a mechanism for suspension and punishment.

In the past six years, drunk driving has killed two baseball players. The first was Josh Hancock, who was drunk, high, and on his cell phone when he crashed into a parked tow truck in 2007; he was the only person who died in that accident. (UPDATE: he was not high, just in possession of marijuana and a pipe, per comments below.) The second was Nick Adenhart, who died along with two others in a 2009 crash that resulted in a murder charge and a 51-year sentence for the drunk driver who hit him. Steroids, generally speaking, do not kill passengers. (Though we don’t quite know what happened with Chris Benoit.)

Of all of the baseball personnel who have recently been arrested for driving under the influence, Grace received the harshest civil penalty, because he had two such offenses in 15 months. He received a four-month jail sentence under a work-release program. “He gets to be released for up to about 12 hours a day,” a DUI attorney told Phoenix’s KTVK. “So in essence, he’s going to be sleeping at a county jail for the next four months.” His work-release will permit him to work for the Diamondbacks.

In May 2011, after Shin-Soo Choo‘s DUI arrest made him the sixth such player of the year, Bud Selig announced that baseball wanted the next Collective Bargaining Agreement to give the commissioner the ability to punish players involved in “alcohol-related-incidents.” Numerous commentators including Yahoo’s Jeff Passan, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, and Sports Illustrated’s Ann Killion called for an alcohol policy with teeth. In the end, no teeth were added.

There are two issues here. First, many people have different reactions when they think about performance-enhancing drugs and drugs of abuse. Performance-enhancing drugs are “cheating” — players take PEDs because they want an advantage over other players (or because they believe other players are already cheating by taking them). Drugs of abuse, on the other hand, are self-defeating. Drunk driving is not a victimless crime, but drinking alone surely is. Alcoholism and drug addiction are recognized and treated as diseases rather than crimes.

Second, none of the players that I mentioned wound up killing anyone else in their car. Hancock killed himself and the others were lucky enough not to end up in a vehicular homicide. Andrew Gallo, the 22-year old driver who killed Adenhart, got 51 years in prison in part due to a history of drinking and driving. But Mark Grace has a history of drinking and driving, and he got four months. So does Rafael Furcal, who has two DUI arrests on his record. Grace and Furcal are lucky that they did not share Gallo’s fate and find themselves in a fatal accident. If Furcal had happened to hit another person on the road, he would have faced a very different outlook for his life.

Drugs of abuse and PEDs are used for very different reasons, and it’s appropriate to think of them differently. First, a steroid user may not need counseling, and it may be harder to effectively deter drunk driving with stiff punishments because people who decide to drive drunk are already drunk, and their decision-making capacity is already impaired. Decreasing DUI incidence may depend more on substitution than deterrence: teams may want to find ways to make taxicabs more available to players — on a no-questions-asked basis — so that players never feel that they need to drive themselves.

Second, since many have argued that PED punishments are actually too lenient, it may not make sense to call for parity between PED and DUI punishments. But what was true in May of 2011 is still true today. A lot of baseball people have been arrested for driving under the influence, and that is dangerous to them and everyone else on the road, and it is also a black eye for baseball. According to a February 6 tweet by The Sporting News’ Anthony Witrado, “12 MLB players, an exec, a bullpen catcher, an announcer and a HOFer have been busted for DUIs since start of 2011.”

It is nice that Todd Helton’s friends are standing by him. I believe in human redemption. So did the parents of Dan Snyder, the Atlanta Thrasher who died in a 2003 car crash caused by his teammate Dany Heatley, who was driving recklessly but was not drunk at the time. Snyder’s parents forgave Heatley and did not press for jail time; Heatley received three years’ probation. Then he requested and received a trade to Ottawa.

But I think that it is important for Major League Baseball to set a precedent. There is no reason for men who make hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars a year to drive drunk. Todd Helton is making $5 million this year. According to Google, he lives in Brighton, CO, about 16.5 miles from Coors Field. According to the online app TaxiMe, he could afford to take that trip in a cab more than 108,000 times this year.

Teams should invest in services to put drunken players in a cab for free any time they need. When a player gets arrested for drunk driving, forgiveness is fine, and treatment is important. But acknowledgement of the seriousness of the offense is necessary. That player endangered himself and other people on the road. He was lucky if he did not hurt anyone else. He should not be so lucky that he avoids punishment.

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Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

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