Throwback Thursday: LaMarr Hoyt Falls in the War on Drugs

In 1983, LaMarr Hoyt was a 24-game winner and the American League Cy Young. By 1986, he was out of baseball due to his drug problem and War on Drugs overreach.

|
Oct 29 2015, 5:51pm

(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)

Imagine that, sometime in the near future, one of this year's Cy Young winners—Zack Greinke, say, although any alpha pitcher will do—tries to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S., with the crotch of his pants bulging so conspicuously as to alarm law enforcement, who then find the bag of pills he had shoved down his front.

Unthinkable? Well, that was LaMarr Hoyt, the 1983 American League Cy Young winner, on this week in 1986.

In the 1980s, drug use was so widespread in baseball that when Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray observed that a Dodgers player was "going back to Los Angeles to get cocaine for his injured foot," the slip was only loosely Freudian. (Caray had meant Novocaine.) The Dodger in question wasn't on drugs, but seemingly everyone else was, a perception given further credence in 1985, when legal proceedings revealed that a number of stars around the league had been getting high with a little help from the Pittsburgh Pirates Parrot. Those players were allowed to pay fines and keep playing despite their drug use. Hoyt was not.

Read More: Earl Weaver Arrives In October, Is Promptly Ejected

The heavyset, heavily bearded product of a rough South Carolina childhood, Hoyt was the ace of the "Winning Ugly" Chicago White Sox, an early Tony La Russa production that made a surprise playoff run. Hoyt won the Cy Young by going 24-10 with a 3.66 ERA, even though he had the fourth-highest ERA among White Sox starters that year. You don't need the retroactive application of WAR to see that he wasn't one of the 10 (perhaps 20) best pitchers in the league that season.

Still, that's not to say that he wasn't a very good pitcher. Hoyt's fastball topped out at 87 miles per hour, but he threw with a three-quarters sidearm motion that baffled right-handed hitters. Combine that with good movement and great command, and he was a tough opponent. Hoyt led his leagues in fewest walks per nine innings three times, with a career low of 0.9 in 1985. He would go on amazing hot streaks: in 1982, he was 9-0 with a 1.45 ERA through the end of May. In 1983, he won 14 straight games, including one playoff start, and in those 108.1 innings he walked 10 batters, one intentionally. He had a stretch of 11 straight wins in 1985, during which he put up a 1.89 ERA over 100 innings and walked nine.

Portrait of the control artist as a fairly young man.

Hoyt's pinpoint accuracy, in retrospect, is a cruel irony. As pitchers from Pete Alexander to Dwight Gooden have shown, pitching control and self-control can be mutually exclusive qualities.

Hoyt had a disappointing 1984, and was criticized for his weight: "He's got everything it takes," catcher Carlton Fisk said, "including a lot of stomach." That winter, the White Sox swapped him to the San Diego Padres in a trade for shortstop prospect Ozzie Guillen. This worked out well at first. With a 12-4 record at the break, Pads manager Dick Williams tabbed Hoyt to start the All-Star Game, where he was named MVP, but the pitcher was badly thrashed in the second half of the season.

"It turned out, I'd torn three tendons that tie your rotator cuff together, and I later found out that I'd also had two bicep tears," Hoyt said in an interview earlier this year. He was not placed on the disabled list; the Padres never looked into it thoroughly. The treatment, Hoyt said, was "ice, stretching and rest," along with the odd cortisone shot.

Hoyt had other problems of a sort not easily fixed by ice or stretching, though rest would have helped. He was having marital difficulties and because of this, or in addition to it, Hoyt suffered from a sleep disorder that limited him to an hour of sleep a night and, his lawyers would subsequently argue, severely impaired his decision-making capability. This seems a plausible explanation for what happened next—for what happened several times.

The original mark, burly.

It began in February 1986, immediately after the Padres' doctors suggested Hoyt's arm might be done. He was stopped at California's San Ysidro border patrol checkpoint trying to cross over from Tijuana carrying marijuana, Valium, and Quaaludes. Hoyt paid a small fine and that was that. A week passed. He was served with divorce papers. That day he was busted again. (Free advice: never run a red light if you're carrying pot and a switchblade.) He pled guilty to misdemeanor "public nuisance." This time, Padres owner Joan Kroc and her proxy, son-in-law and team president Ballard Smith, bundled Hoyt off to a Minnesota clinic to be treated for alcohol abuse. He was there, not altogether willingly, for 28 days.

Hoyt returned two weeks into the 1986 season and pitched in pain, going 8-11 with a 5.15 ERA. It would be the 31-year-old's first truly subpar season in the big leagues. On October 28, he again tried to cross the border at San Ysidro with 500 pills stuffed in his pants and socks. Through a plea bargain, the charges were reduced to misdemeanors; he was sentenced to 45 days at a federal prison camp, plus five years' supervised probation and a $5,025 fine. He also had to forfeit his Porsche, because, well, people who use pills can't have nice things.

Although the federal "War on Drugs" began in 1971, the mid-1980s marked its nervous height, due to the arrival of crack cocaine and the deaths of prominent athletes like Celtics first-rounder Len Bias, who overdosed that same June. On October 27, 1986, the day before Hoyt's fateful border run, President Ronald Reagan signed a $1.7 billion anti-drug law. "This legislation is not intended as a means of filling our jails with drug users," he said. "What we must do as a society is identify those who use drugs... and give them the support they need to live right." This was the law that introduced wide disparities in penalties for crack and powder cocaine possession. It did indeed fill our jails with users.

Nowhere was drug panic greater than in San Diego. Kroc, whom Williams later characterized as a "vehement anti-drug activist," vowed to have a clean team. Getting caught once equaled two strikes. If a player failed again, the Padres shunned him. Perhaps not coincidentally, two fatalities from baseball's drug era were associated with the Padres—pitcher Eric Show and second baseman Alan Wiggins. Show's drug problems didn't come to the fore until later, and so he had a long stay in San Diego. Wiggins was traded out of town immediately. He died at 32 of AIDS after contracting HIV from IV drug use. This is not wholly on the Padres, but, in their quest to set an example, they were first to turn their backs on Wiggins on his path from hitting leadoff in the World Series to being homeless and deathly ill.

''There is no moral middle ground" on drugs, First Lady Nancy Reagan, herself an anti-drug activist ("Just say no," if you forgot), said that fall. "Indifference is not an option.'' But indifference was a hallmark of the "vehement" Mrs. Kroc and her Padres. Before his 1986 preseason physical, Hoyt filled out one of those waiting room questionnaires. What drugs was he taking? Valium and Restoril. Was there "any problem associated with the use of the listed drugs that he would like to discuss with a physician?" Hoyt answered "Yes," but was ignored. Instead, after Hoyt's second border arrest, Smith decided the pitcher was a cocaine user. The Padres unilaterally voided Hoyt's three-year, $3 million deal, and released him. Baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth piled on, suspending Hoyt for the entire 1987 season. "While our first priority is to provide help to those who need it," Ueberroth said, "we will impose discipline where appropriate."

This dude accounted for a full quarter of a 99-win team's total.

An arbitrator subsequently overturned all of that, and criticized the Padres for ignoring Hoyt's personal and medical issues, citing a psychologist's report that called him a "medication misuser" as opposed to a "substance abuser." Would it have made a difference for Hoyt to be the latter—a player destroying his life trying to get high rather than a player destroying his life trying to get relief from physical or emotional pain? In practical terms, the answer is no, but labeling someone a "misuser" might convince more judgmental actors to forego their moral opprobrium and let the abuser get the treatment he needs. That both rationales for using lead to the same place was missed in the 1980s.

Joan Kroc missed it most of all. "We may be forced to pay him," she said, "but we will not be forced to play him." Hoyt was released again. An attempted comeback with the White Sox was short lived: a medical examination revealed his shredded shoulder. And so Hoyt hung 'em up, and just in time: on December 5, 1987 police entered his apartment and found plastic bags containing marijuana and two grams of cocaine. He was charged with possession with intent to distribute. The AP reported Hoyt's comment: "Oh no, not again."

Prosecutors said he had tested positive for cocaine, and Hoyt was ordered to serve a year in federal prison for violating his probation. He subsequently pled guilty to the new charges; the additional two and a half years of jail time was suspended to seven months, served concurrently with his previous sentence.

Aside from a 1991 drunk-driving arrest, Hoyt has stayed out of the news since then. He got off more lightly than teammates Show and Wiggins, but he was a victim nonetheless, vilified and exiled for what today we understand to be a treatable illness, not a personal failing.

"I used to think the worst thing that could happen to you in America was to get fired from your job," Donald Fehr, then executive director of the Players Association, said at the time of Hoyt's suspension. "Now they've fired this guy and said he can't even work any place else."

Drug abuse of the non-PED variety doesn't come up much in today's game, but if it did, most players found to be using would not initially face punishment. The Joint Drug Agreement between Major League Baseball and the Players Association mandates treatment for a first offense, presuming the user wasn't revealed via a conviction—in which case the player can be immediately suspended. Because Hoyt pled guilty to importing Quaaludes, a federal Schedule I drug, a case like his would still proceed directly to penalties (Valium, the other drug Hoyt was caught carrying, is a legal drug he obtained by illegal means).

That's not to say penalties would be the right or productive course to take. Just last week, in a speech on criminal justice reform, President Obama noted, "I signed a bill reducing the 100 to 1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. I've commuted the sentences of dozens of people sentenced under old drug laws ... And I'll keep working with lawmakers from both parties [on a bill] that would reduce mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders."

LaMarr Hoyt was just such a nonviolent drug offender, less a criminal than an addict. We are starting to recognize that there is a difference between the two, albeit slowly and too late for Hoyt and so many others.