At 7:36 p.m. last Wednesday, Kansas City centerfielder Willie Wilson came to bat for the first time since serving 81 days at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Worth for attempting to possess cocaine. Leading off and playing centerfield—"first and central," as his teammates put it—Wilson stood in against White Sox lefthander Floyd Bannister and the infamously inhospitable fans at Chicago's Comiskey Park. During batting practice some of them had unfurled a banner reading WILLIE, COKE IS IT. Wilson laughed and they put it away.
Sid Salzberg, the Royals' team psychologist, had steeled Wilson for the evening by telling him to repeat to himself, "I'm all right, I'm O.K." Now, Wilson heard only a smattering of boos. "How you doin'?" catcher Carlton Fisk said pleasantly. "Fine," Wilson said, and he proved it by drawing a walk. Then, attempting to steal second base, Wilson got such a good jump that he didn't even draw a throw. Moments later Bannister attempted to pick Wilson off second, but his throw tipped the glove of second baseman Julio Cruz and rolled into short left-center. As Wilson bolted for third base and raced all the way home, the cares of the winter flew off him with every long stride. He smiled broadly as he ran toward the dugout, and his teammates clapped him on the shoulders and told their sorely missed leadoff man, "You're back!"
"It was just like old times," said Royals second baseman Frank White, "scoring a run in the first without even getting a hit." And it was the Royals of old who rallied from a 5-1 deficit to win 7-6, with Wilson contributing another walk and a single.
Wilson isn't the only drug offender who had a belated Opening Day this year. Atlanta pitcher Pascual Perez spent three months in a Dominican Republic prison for cocaine possession before making his first start on May 2. Two of Wilson's former Kansas City teammates, Toronto DH-first baseman Willie Aikens and Mets outfielder Jerry Martin, served time in the same prison as Wilson and were also reinstated by commissioner Bowie Kuhn last Wednesday. In Minneapolis, Aikens came to bat as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning and grounded out. In Toronto the following evening, Aikens received a hero's welcome and went 2 for 3 off Cy Young Award winner LaMarr Hoyt as the Blue Jays defeated the White Sox 3-2.
Martin joined the Mets in San Francisco but didn't play until Friday, when he entered the game as a pinch hitter and flied out on the first pitch. But Martin was happy just to be back. "I'll tell you what I thought about most in prison," he said. "I thought about facing the opposing pitchers—every one of them." And he didn't mind at all when a teammate kidded him, "Hey, Jerry, you're famous—you met Bowie Kuhn himself." (Martin, Wilson and Aikens had been obliged to meet with the commissioner the day before.) Said Martin, "After being away so long, I was happy to hear them laugh at me."
There's nothing funny about baseball's continuing drug problem. In the past five years 16 players have either admitted to having drug problems or have been convicted of drug-related charges (see box, page 45). Kuhn has suspended five offenders in the last year alone. These don't include some 11 present and former players whose names have been mentioned in drug investigations. Unknown are the number of players who've received confidential counseling and, the largest number of all, active players who are currently using illegal drugs. "The problem," says Kuhn, "is serious."
So serious, in fact, that a joint player-owner committee has proposed a comprehensive drug program to deal with the problem. The players have been voting on the proposal in recent weeks, and the owners are expected to take it up at a meeting in Chicago on Thursday.
Why is baseball discussing drugs more publicly than other businesses are? One reason: Baseball, unlike, say, an automobile manufacturer, does its business under the public's eye. The names of all arrested and most recovering players are discussed in print and on TV, the result being that drugs have become a public-relations stigma. Baseball officials and fans can't help but wonder who's playing under the influence and who isn't. (Retired pitcher Dock Ellis, now a drug counselor in Los Angeles, said recently that as a Pirate he pitched his 1970 no-hitter against San Diego while under the influence of LSD.) And there's the threat that a player in hock to his dealer could shave runs or throw games. Not since the 1919 Black Sox scandal have club owners and law enforcement officials worried so much about the integrity of the game.
Drugs loom over baseball's everyday doings. An established player goes into a slump, and critics whisper: "It must be drugs." The 18-times-a-year publication Baseball America no longer calls itself "The Baseball Junkies' Newspaper." California pitcher Bruce Kison moans, "I'm so sick of having team meetings to discuss drug problems instead of how to pitch a club."
General managers can consult a "drug list" of suspected players before making trades. "If you're thinking of acquiring a player, you can find out from the commissioner's office if he has had a known problem," says Montreal president John McHale. "Anytime you have a problem with a player or suspect a problem you can get investigative help from the commissioner's office."