I wanted to like this book. I actually wanted to love this book. But ultimately I was let down. The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven by Aaron Skirboll is a book that, like a biography of Dave Parker, has been practically begging to be written. Skirboll wrote it and did a credible job. However, he could’ve done a lot more with it. This reminds me of someone who was writing a term paper on a tight deadline. Some obvious connections were left out and the result is a good story that is only partially told.
If that sounds harsh, I don’t mean to be quite so critical. In fact, I would encourage everyone and anyone who loves baseball to go out and purchase this book because quite simply this tale has not been told in full before in print. Skirboll does a very good job piecing together the story of the the jock sniffers – Dale Shiffman, Kevin Koch, Curtis Strong and four others – who wind up providing cocaine to various players throughout the league. Koch was the first Pirate Parrot. Shiffman was his best buddy. Strong was the Phillies caterer. Another – Shelby Greer – happened to meet Dave Parker on an airplane. Two other men got hooked up with John Milner at a bar that he frequented. The total number of people who served time for providing drugs to the Pirates was eight. But Strong wasn’t from Pittsburgh. Hence the title.
Skirboll also more than adequately goes through the trial process. Most of the men plea bargained. But Strong went to trial and it was in that court room where many names were named. Notably Willie Stargell and Willie Mays were mentioned as sources of aphetamines.
But this book lacks in several places. First, only a couple of former players who were users – Lonnie Smith, Al Holland and Dave Parker – were interviewed. No clean Pirates of the day (Jim Morrison, Johnny Ray and Tony Pena for example) other than Don Robinson (and Jim Rooker who was long retired by 1985) were interviewed for the book. Did Skirboll attempt to track them down? Did they other players refuse to talk with him about the subject? He is silent on the issue. But it is a gaping hole in narrative of the book – the voice of the active player whose clubhouse was literally turned into a drug den is missing.
Also missing is a discussion of how quickly the drug of choice came to be considered highly dangerous. In 1986 the #2 pick in the NBA draft Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose. Eight days later, Cleveland Brown Donnie Rogers died from a heart attack related to cocaine. I would imagine most baseball players had seen the damage that cocaine had done to the careers of several players (Rod Scurry and Dale Berra come to mind). With Bias and Rogers passing away, many had to realize that their lives were also possibly at stake. While this certainly didn’t scare everyone straight, it likely curtailed cocaine usage without a testing program in place. Skirboll doesn’t address Rogers or Bias at all. In regard to the fall of 1986, Skirboll writes on page 213, “Then something unexpected happened. Everything on the drug front went eerily quiet. By October it was World Series time…” That silence was undoubtedly due to players coming to their senses. Their paycheck and their life was potentially on the line. It was time to stop abusing. But Skirboll ignores this and with the voice of the active player absent, there is no discussion on what effect the death of two star athletes had on the mindset of the partying MLBer. Skirboll does mention the drug related deaths of Scurry (in some disturbing detail), Alan Wiggins and Eric Show. Those untimely passings came long after the final witness was sworn in at Strong’s trial. Bias and Rogers passed away while the topic was still hot.
He also makes a huge leap in suggesting that if MLB had been able to get mandatory drug testing into the collective bargaining agreement that getting mandatory steroid testing would have been simpler. I disagree. As noted above, the push for mandatory cocaine testing died off as it was obvious that cocaine was on its way out as a drug of choice. Had it been included in the CBA, expanding testing to performance enhancing drugs would’ve required both sides – owners and players – to want testing. To be blunt, neither side wanted steroid testing until public outcry was enormous. And at that point, both sides came together to get steroid testing in the CBA. But in 1993 or 1996 or 1999 or whenever steroid use became more common than not, the players and owners were both raking in money. No one was pushing for PED testing. So even with a comprehensive test for coke, getting streroids tested for simply wouldn’t have happened because there wasn’t a great impetus for it. During the mid 1980s the owners wanted drug testing. The players – citing privacy – didn’t. 10 years later, neither side was interested in steroid testing.
While Skirboll makes the leap from coke to steroids, what he doesn’t tackle is the leap from amphetamines to cocaine. It has been cited too often in the past not to be mentioned, but Jim Bouton’s Book Ball Four sent the National Pastime’s drug and alcohol problems straight into the open. Despite the mention of amphetamines during the strong trial, Skirboll doesn’t dive into baseball’s very weak attempt at ridding the game of greenies in the early 1970s. Chuck Dobson, for example, went on record stating he used greenies prior to a start in 1970. He was told firmlly by commissioner Bowie Kuhn to retract the statement, which he eventually did. Baseball had a history of turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to what Bouton describes as performance enabling drugs, like amphetamines. None of the Kuhn’s feeble attempts to rid the game of baseball of greenies or his equally unsuccessful attempts at preventing such knowledge of becoming public is discussed.
Finally, I have to question Skirboll’s knowledge of the Pirates performance during the cocaine era. He writes of the team’s struggles at the gate and in the standings: With the team up for sale and suffering from poor attendance, not to mention an image problem that had some calling their stadium the National League drugstore, the Pirates responded with a series of odd moves. First, on May 23 they fired general manager Harding Peterson…
Unless Skirboll is a personal friend of the Peterson family, I don’t see how that could be considered an odd move. Peterson had run the team into the ground. Empty drafts and poor trades had left the team devoid of hitting talent. They were in last place and the fault belonged mostly to Peterson. He deserved to be canned. There are no two ways about it. If it was odd, it was only odd in that it was overdue and took too long to happen.
I would also love to see – but costs probably prevent it – a full transcript of player testimony during the Strong trial. Word-for-word. Let’s see all of it.
Skirboll, in painting the tale of the 1979 Pirates, notes that Pittsburgh acquired Tim Foli from the Mets one month into the season. It was earlier than that. That’s a minor, nit-picky issue. But I have to wonder who is doing the fact checking.
As I stated earlier, despite some issues – notably the lack of interviews with contemporary players and the leap into the steroids issue – this book is a good one. It is indexed properly and Skirboll’s has referenced his research appropriately with a complete bibliography.
Overall, this book is worth purchasing. It is also worth having someone more thoroughly write this story in the coming years.