MLB and opioids: Is this baseball's next drug scandal? – The Washington Post
The trial of former Los Angeles Angels communications director Eric Kay, which ended last week with the jury finding him guilty of giving pitcher Tyler Skaggs the fentanyl-laced oxycodone that led to his death, at times seemed to spill secrets about a drug scourge in Major League Baseball clubhouses.
MLB players, including former star pitcher Matt Harvey, gave testimony that suggested some were self-medicating with black-market pain pills. They were there ostensibly to help prosecutors prove Kay was distributing drugs to players. But like a miniature version of the Pittsburgh drug trials of 1985 — during which more than a dozen players testified about rampant cocaine and amphetamine use — their testimony also appeared to pull back the curtain on a broader problem in baseball, with prosecutors suggesting the Angels and MLB are complicit.
“There’s no question the MLB system is broken,” assistant U.S. attorney Errin Martin said during her closing statement. “[Major leaguers] have to do whatever it takes to play.”
That appeared to be the government’s answer to the question that was raised by the discovery of Skaggs’s body at a Texas hotel in 2019: Does baseball have an opioids problem? But outside of the courthouse, there’s hardly a consensus that baseball is in the grips of a drug dependency epidemic. MLB’s own numbers, the product of thousands of random drug tests implemented following Skaggs’s death, indicate the opposite. And players interviewed by The Washington Post said that, outside of the Skaggs case, they had never encountered opioid abuse in baseball.
“I’ve played 17 years, and I never saw or heard of any teammate who took part in that,” said Brandon Snyder, who has played professionally since 2005, including major league stints with five teams. “It’s hard for me to believe that it’s an epidemic that’s going through baseball.”
“To be brutally honest, obviously we can say that there might be an issue because someone has passed away,” Chicago Cubs catcher Yan Gomes said. “But I haven’t heard or been around anything like that.”
“I can’t remember ever having a conversation or hearing anything about opioid use among coaches or players throughout my career,” said Will Venable, a former player who is now bench coach for the Boston Red Sox.
Those in the game who do have experience with opioid abuse may be hesitant to admit it in public. And MLB, given its history of covering up steroid use, is sure to inspire cynicism when it insists the game is clean.
Former Angels employee found guilty of providing drugs that killed pitcher Tyler Skaggs
Depending on how you viewed it, Kay’s trial showed Skaggs’s death was either the result of a sport whose athletes become addicts as they attempt to push through pain and a grueling schedule or of the unfortunate, isolated incident of a few drug users who happened to be employed by the same team.
Agent Lonnie Murray said she had clients who struggled with opioid abuse, including a minor leaguer who, after injuring his back, died of what she believed was an oxycodone overdose. But baseball, Murray said, only reflects the wider crisis of opioid abuse. “I think it’s a problem in society,” she said. “I don’t think it’s more prevalent in baseball than it is in society.”
She expressed an opinion held by many in baseball — that Kay was scapegoated. She said she believed the government attempted to depict the case as a takedown of baseball’s supposed pain pill culture so that it appeared a more worthwhile cause than sending one drug user to prison for decades after the death of another.
“When we’re talking about the prosecutor trying to make it an Angels thing or an MLB thing, that is how you get a conviction,” Murray said. “You have to make it about big business versus an individual.”
As America’s fentanyl epidemic has proved impossible to corral, federal authorities appear to have focused on cracking down on the street-level dealers involved in high-profile overdose deaths, including those of actor Michael K. Williams and rapper Mac Miller.
In the case of Skaggs, who was 27 when he was found dead with a mix of alcohol, fentanyl and oxycodone in his system, prosecutors appeared intent on connecting his death to a systemic problem in the sport — and potential complicity by the Angels.
In announcing Kay’s indictment in August 2020, Erin Nealy Cox, then U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, suggested Skaggs was driven to opioid addiction because he was “battling through a number of injuries as he continued to play ball.” The prosecutor asked players dealing with addiction to call a hotline.
And the prosecution has at times aligned with allegations made in lawsuits filed by Skaggs’s family that have blamed the Angels for his death. In those lawsuits, Skaggs’s family, represented by attorney Rusty Hardin, has claimed that top team brass allowed Kay — who allegedly had survived a recent overdose — “unrestricted access” to players who, because of “the rigors of a 162-game schedule … are at risk of turning to medication to assist with pain management.”
The lawsuits even suggested that the Angels kept Kay on staff because of, not in spite of, his proximity to pain pills.
“Why would the Angels promote a drug addict to an executive position, which granted him access to the Angels’ players, such that he was constantly seen hanging out with players in the locker room, on the team plane, and in their hotel rooms?” a civil complaint reads. “The answer to this question became obvious when Kay admitted to DEA investigators he had been providing illegal opioids to at least six Angels players.”
Prosecutors claimed in pretrial court filings in the Kay case that the Angels were defying a subpoena seeking documents related to “illegal drug-dealing in their organization.” The Angels countered that they had provided federal authorities with nearly 1 million pages of internal documents, except for those covered by attorney-client privilege. A judge agreed, calling the prosecutors’ subpoena “a government fishing expedition.”
During the trial, the only non-player employee of the Angels said to have knowledge of the drug use was a clubhouse attendant, who prosecutors claimed had linked Kay with the dealer who sold him the pill that killed Skaggs.
But unlike in other drug cases, there appeared to be little interest in following the fentanyl-laced pill up the supply chain. Court testimony suggested Kay, who used the same drugs that he distributed to Skaggs and other players, didn’t profit from the practice.
Federal agents testified about Kay’s suspected source, a dealer they knew as “Ashley Smith.” But they acknowledged that that name was probably a pseudonym and that they did not follow up on the identity or whereabouts of Smith, whose “burner” phone was deactivated following Skaggs’s death.
Kay’s lawyer, Michael Molfetta, claimed the apparent lack of pursuit of Smith was evidence that federal authorities were satisfied with the publicity inherent in a case implicating Kay, a team employee whom Molfetta described as a lackey for the players.
“A professional athlete, that has some cachet,” Molfetta said during his closing argument.
The trial’s highest-profile moments came with the testimony of major leaguers, who discussed a secret practice of drug use in the game. The players, at least one of whom was compelled to testify and given immunity as long as he told the truth, appeared uncomfortable, sometimes crying in the witness box.
Pitcher Mike Morin, once Skaggs’s teammate with the Angels, said Kay provided him with oxycodone pills; he said he would bite off a piece before taking the field. First baseman C.J. Cron said he got pills from Kay roughly eight times — when he was with the Angels and after he was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays. Both testified that they learned of Kay’s access to pills through Skaggs.
Harvey, who was an all-star for the New York Mets before joining the Angels, acknowledged cocaine use throughout his career. When asked by a prosecutor whether it was common for players to use oxycodone and Tylenol, he answered, “Yes,” and he also testified to sharing his own drugs with Skaggs.
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Harvey said that in hindsight he wished he had advised Skaggs to be careful. “In baseball, you do everything you can to stay on the field,” he said. “At the time I felt as a teammate I was just helping him get through whatever he needed to get through.”
Harvey said he learned before the Angels’ road trip to Texas — where Skaggs died — that he was not going. Harvey said he felt “left out” and arranged for Kay to leave him an oxycodone pill in his locker.
But when he learned the next day of Skaggs’s death, Harvey said, he rushed back to the ballpark to retrieve the pill and throw it away. “I didn’t want anything to do with that,” said Harvey, who spent last season with the Baltimore Orioles. “I was scared.”
Former Angels pitcher Cam Bedrosian told the jury that he got “three or four” oxycodone pills from Kay and took one but felt guilty and “kind of weird.” He said he gave the remaining pills back to Kay. Pitcher Blake Parker said he purchased 10 pills from Kay but his hand turned numb after he took half of one so he returned the rest. And a Drug Enforcement Administration agent testified that another Angels pitcher, Garrett Richards, sent Kay $1,700 via Venmo.
Skaggs’s opioid dependency was described as the result of a confluence of baseball stressors. His mother testified that he became hooked on Percocet to cope with having to perform at a high level; his wife, Carli, said he was under pressure to stay healthy and keep playing.
But multiple players said they had no source for opioids other than Kay, countering the idea of a widespread, leaguewide practice of players popping pills to play through injuries.
Pitcher Andrew Heaney acknowledged every player’s “ongoing battle to remain healthy,” but he said he had never used any drug outside of marijuana. And he said Skaggs, with whom he was close friends, never told him about his drug use, suggesting it was a closely held secret.
The existence of an MLB clubhouse with members regularly trading pain pills seemed like an anomaly to Snyder, the longtime professional ballplayer. He said the demands of the season would make it nearly impossible to maintain a career while dependent on opioids.
“Baseball players are human beings, and whether you’re a construction worker that hurts his back on a site and is prescribed medication and is addicted to it, [that] is no different than a baseball player that has a shoulder surgery and ends up being addicted to it,” Snyder said. “It’s a highly addictive drug, and mistakes happen.”
Making the matter murkier are test results that appear to suggest fears of an opioid epidemic in baseball, at least in the years since Skaggs’s death, are overblown.
After Skaggs’s death, MLB announced that it would start testing for opioids, saying players who test positive would first be put on a treatment plan rather than disciplined. The MLB Players Association agreed to the change, with Executive Director Tony Clark saying the players “want to take a leadership role in helping to resolve this national epidemic.”
MLB has conducted 12,169 drug tests over the past two seasons. While those tests implicated 15 players for using performance-enhancing drugs, according to public annual reports released by MLB, the number of positives for running afoul of the opioid policy is zero.
And in the minor leagues, where players have been tested for opioids for two decades, the numbers were also low, according to a person with knowledge of the testing program. Of more than 95,000 drug tests over the past seven years, according to that person, there have been 12 opioid or opiate violations — and none in upward of 16,000 tests in the past two seasons.
But outside of the disclosure of the number of tests, MLB has been opaque on key points about its program that could more definitively show the extent of abuse.
Opioid abuse historically has been fueled as much by lax prescribing as black-market distribution. But MLB doesn’t make public the number of tests in which a player tested positive for opioids in which his use of the drugs was deemed to be authorized by a “valid medically appropriate prescription provided by a duly licensed physician,” which is allowed under MLB policy.
Giving that authorization is the job of the Joint Treatment Board, which includes four people, with MLB and the players union represented by a medical professional and a lawyer apiece; their identities have not been publicly disclosed.
According to a person involved in management of the testing program, the number of MLB players who have tested positive for opioids in the two years of testing is in the low single digits. In each case, according to that person, the legitimacy of the player’s need for opioids was “quite obvious” — most commonly from a short-term prescription following surgery.
The clashing perspectives on the scope of the problem differ from the episode decades ago, when players were compelled to testify about drug abuse in the clubhouse. Following the Pittsburgh drug trials, there was no doubt that the game, like wider society in the 1980s, was in the midst of a cocaine scourge.
In that case, Philadelphia Phillies clubhouse caterer Curtis Strong, described by his lawyer as a “poor, pitiful baseball junkie,” was among seven men — all non-players — indicted on a charge of drug distribution, and he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
When Kay is sentenced in June, mandatory minimums ensure he’ll be slated to do more time than that. He faces between 20 years and a life sentence.
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