Ron Costello

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Best Baseball Player in the World not in the HOF

Ferguson Jenkins.

It's the answer to the baseball trivia question: What was the worst trade in Phillies history? In 1966, two years beyond their famous nose dive, the Phillies, making a desperate attempt to get back on top, went after two aging pitchers, Larry Jackson and Bob Buhl. They traded the 22-year-old Jenkins to the Cubbies for Jackson and Buhl.

Big mistake.

Jenkins had a great career but with a slight hiccup. In 1980 with the Texas Rangers he was arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police prior to the start of the Blue Jays' game and charged with three counts of possession of narcotics — four grams of cocaine, two ounces of marijuana and two grams of hashish. The drugs were found in his luggage as it passed through the Toronto International Airport.

Today, carrying that amount of drugs could get you a 1st or 2nd-degree felony charge and 2-20 years. However, a judge later dropped the charges because of Jenkins' "work in the community."

And then there's Steve Howe. An overbearing left-hander, Howe was Rookie of the Year with the Dodgers in 1980 and an All-Star in '82. He played 12 seasons in the major leagues. But Howe had problems with drugs and alcohol abuse and was suspended a number of times.

Eventually, after the seventh, Howe was kicked out of baseball, and that wasn't an inning, it was his seventh time caught. He was the second player banned from the majors because of substance abuse.

The first? Ferguson Jenkins. Jenkins, however, was reinstated by an independent arbiter — a University of Kansas law professor — and retired after the 1983 season. And Jenkins, even after getting pinched in a drug bust, was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in 1991.

Good for him. There is no evidence that Ferguson Jenkins was an addict.

Nothing against Howe, or the hard-throwing Fergie Jenkins, both good men who made positive contributions to the game. But drug and alcohol addictions are complex, chronic diseases that make chemical changes to the brain. Therefore, drug and alcohol addictions today are not considered "choices," but a chemical disease of the brain. Or, as in Jenkins case, they can get you into a whole lot of trouble, too.

It makes sense that criminal charges — that were later dropped — WOULD NOT keep Jenkins out of Cooperstown. Nor would it keep out the Iron Man, Lou Gehrig, who retired after 17 seasons with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a crippling death sentence that today carries Gehrig's name.

No one in their right mind would suggest that Gehrig be removed from Cooperstown because of his disease.

Or Magic Johnson, either. Johnson shocked the world in 1991 when he announced that he had contracted HIV. Twenty years later, now 52, he is still alive and has become a successful businessman, sports analyst, and HIV activist. Should Johnson be kept out of basketball's Hall of Fame because of his disease?

Of course not. He's not only a member of the College Basketball Hall of Fame but a member of the Naismith Memorial NBA Basketball Hall of Fame, too, as he should be. He was a great basketball player.

It's long been noted that some sick people have faced discrimination: For example, those with disabilities, HIV, tuberculous, mental illness, psychiatric disorders, autism, and drug addiction, to name a few. At first, in some cases, mainstream society had trouble accepting a disease as a disease.

Like gambling. Compulsive gambling is just as much a disease as drug and alcohol addiction, HIV, mental illness, and Lou Gehrig's disease.

Here's what the Mayo Clinic says about gambling: "Compulsive gambling, also called gambling disorder, is the uncontrollable urge to keep gambling despite the toll it takes on your life. Gambling can stimulate the brain's reward system much like drugs or alcohol can, leading to addiction."

The American Society of Addiction Medicine says "Gambling is a disease." So does the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Medical Association. They all say gambling is not a "life choice" but a chemical illness of the brain.

Look, here's the thing. How do baseball players get elected to the Hall of Fame? Votes are cast annually by members of the Baseball Writers Association who have ten or more years membership. Who are they? Sports reporters; journalists; editors. Good people, sure — some of them, anyway — people who know baseball inside-out and write and edit baseball stories for a living.

No offense to members of the Baseball Writers Association, but I think they would be the first to admit they know little about the differences between lung cancer, HIV, and drug and alcohol addiction, not to mention...


How can MLB decide that one disease is acceptable and another is not? And block Rose from ever getting on the ballot.

It is unjustifiable, discriminatory, unfair, and downright wrong to say it's okay to have Lou Gehrig's disease but not a gambling addiction. And I know what you're thinking: Come on, you can't compare amyotrophic lateral sclerosis to gambling. That's ridiculous.

It's not, and yes you can. If you think it's ridiculous then you are judging a disease, gambling, unfairly. You are choosing to make gambling — like the baseball writers have and are doing — insignificant. Don't do it. Gambling is a disease.

You can look at case by case in baseball to see how unfair baseball writers can be in their determination of who is hall elegible and who is not. You can also see that some former players were "excused" for their behavior and some crucified.

You may not like Pete Rose. You may think he's a bigshot bully, a womanizer, a guy who only cares about putting down a few bucks for the thrill of gambling. And you may be right.

But judge the man by the kind of baseball player he was, and a man — just like Gehrig or Howe or Magic Johnson — who had a dreadful disease.

And for God's sakes, put Pete Rose where he belongs, in Cooperstown.

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