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Aaron Skirboll

October 13, 2011

Aaron Skirboll, Author, Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven (July 5,  2011):

First, how did the idea for your book, The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven, come about?

It was one of those stories that just sort of haunted me for years, in that I knew there was something there, although I originally looked at it in terms of a screenplay.

But either way, after so many years, it was too interesting to pass up— you had a drug dealing parrot, a coked up defense attorney at the biggest drug trial in MLB history, and a Bucco reliever, who once ditched the bullpen and finished a game at his dealer’s pad on the North Side.

The story had a little bit of everything; baseball, FBI investigations, reporters breaking the “big” case, courtroom drama, and drugs.

Are you surprised at how seemingly forgotten the 1985 Pirates drug trials seem to be now?

Yeah, that was another reason I was interested in writing it.

At the time I began this project, the Mitchell Report was coming out and all that stuff was going on, and nobody really remembered anything about the cocaine era, particularly outside of Pittsburgh.

Also, from the feedback I’m receiving, a lot of people born around or after this period really had no idea that this occurred on in baseball.

In your opinion, why did then U.S. Attorney J. Alan Johnson decide not to go after the players, give them immunity, and instead focus solely on the dealers – do you think then MLB commissioner Ueberroth had anything to do with the investigators lack of focus on the players?

In talking with Mr. Johnson and the Assistant U.S. Attorney, James Ross, this was just the standard way the Western District of PA handled such cases.

In order to get to the dealers, you had to get somebody to talk. Faced with the choice of going after the supplier or the user, the Govt. chose the former. In this case the people buying the drugs just happened to be millionaire ballplayers.

This made it hard for the public to accept. The rich get a slap on the wrist and the poor get prison. Pampered athlete versus the bartender. It didn’t sit well. But if it was poor man vs. poor man, the argument was that it would have been handled the same way, somebody was going to get away with something.

The problem the seven arrested men had was not with being arrested so much, they understood that they’d broken the law, it was the fact that the ballplayers were all getting off scot free, across the board, and the dealers thought many of these athletes were doing the same thing, which in many cases amounted to being the middleman in transactions— one guy going to pick up drugs for the rest, which the ballplayers certainly did.

It was interesting that right after this case in ’85, the Justice Dept. issued a statement that said it would be much more stringent in regards to immunity for professional athletes in drug cases moving forward. If this case went down today, who knows how it would have played out. As you see with the Clemens case, it’s almost as if the roles have been reversed with McNamee the one getting immunity.

Do you think Ueberroth and players union head Donald Fehr did enough during and after the trial to help prevent further drug usage in MLB? Why/why not?

Ueberroth surely went for it, he pushed for drug testing, which Fehr, who was just coming into his job as Union Chief at the time, wholeheartedly opposed.

It’s hard to say how Fehr’s stance on testing was beneficial to his players, beyond the right to privacy stance adopted at the time. Believe it or not, there was an incredible push for testing in baseball at the time of these trials in Pittsburgh, to some it was almost a foregone conclusion. But Fehr and Co. put a stop to such talk.

It’s interesting that right before Fehr and after Marvin Miller, a guy named Kenneth Moffett was head of the union, and it was said that he was very keen on working out a deal with the owners on the drug problem. Moffett was fired by the players after serving less than a year.

How hard was it to research this subject – did you find many of those involved willing to speak on the subject?

It was tough, but something I enjoyed.

Most of the dealers were more than happy to talk, sort of like “what took you so long, this a story that needs to be told.” Of course many of the people I spoke with also thought their part of the story should have been the sole basis of the book.

Those who investigated this case; FBI agents, U.S. Attorneys were great in describing their roles. As for the players, many were extremely forthcoming, particularly Dave Parker and Lonnie Smith. In fact, it was with the former players who were reported to have not been mixed up with drugs who were tougher to get to talk.

The ones who were accused, sort of took the position, “Yeah, I partied, it was the eighties, for christ’s sake.” But with the so-called “clean” players, a lot of them didn’t want to have anything to do with talking about cocaine.

How has the trial affected the Pirates players involved in terms of their careers and personal lives- short and long term? Did you have the opportunity to speak to any of them before or after the book was written?

The two Pirates players who I think were most affected by the trial and/or cocaine use in general were Rod Scurry and Dave Parker. Scurry, of course, battled addiction, every day he was in the league, basically since the day he became a professional ballplayer to the day he died because of drugs.

I talked extensively with his brother, and he spoke of a guy who’d barely even touched a beer prior to signing with the Bucs as a teenager a week out of high school. Scurry’s story really highlights what was going on in the league in the seventies and early-eighties, how once you get passed everything else, these were just twenty-something year old kids, sometimes younger, thrust into an environment with greenies and cocaine.

Some managed to stay clean, many didn’t? Parker, meanwhile, was the best player in the game at the end of the seventies and this past year was his final year of eligibility to get into the hall. He has a pretty good idea why he wasn’t inducted.

So many fans then seemed to be unfaltering on their support of the Pirates players involved. Why do you suppose that was?

Some were, many weren’t. You had the line of thinking with many fans, when this all came out, that “there’s no way I’m going to pay for some guys drug habit.” Attendance was sparse. Of course it didn’t help that the team was pretty awful.

In your research, did race play much of a part in the investigation’s direction or in the reaction by fans and media?

Not really.

What was the most startling fact to you that you uncovered as you researched the book?

I was amazed at just how prevalent cocaine and amphetamine use was in the league— the stories of guys sleeping in the dugout and bullpen during games, and of course, about Tim Raines sliding headfirst  so he wouldn’t bust his coke vial he carried in his back pocket.

But overall, just the fact at how close they were to addressing the drug problem more than twenty-five years ago, with all the same tests the players now go through. Sure, initially the testing would have been for drugs of abuse, but with steroids coming into the league, according to trainers, as early as 1987, it would have been much easier to tweak the system to include different drugs, as happens today, as opposed to getting the union to agree to test at all.

That was where the battle was, not what’s being tested, simply being tested.

While the focus was on the Pirates players, was there any evidence that this trial was endemic of drug usage throughout baseball?

Absolutely, investigators said this could have happened in any city in the league.

Do you have plans for further books on baseball?

I’ve just narrowed the choice for my next book down to three a few days ago. One of them is on baseball. It’s a little nerve-racking to pull that trigger and know that you’re going to be tied down to that particular subject for the next two or three years, so I’m trying to make sure it’s something that’s going to hold my interest like this one did.

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