MLB must rethink alcohol abuse policy

If you think baseball is too soft on alcohol, you’re right. Change is coming. But heaven knows how many more players will be arrested on suspicion of DUI before the problem is addressed in the next collective-bargaining agreement.

Sources in both management and the players’ union said Tuesday that a new alcohol policy likely will be part of the new CBA. It’s about time: Under the current program, which expires on Dec. 11, alcohol is not even classified as a “drug of abuse.”

Marijuana, yes. Cocaine, yes. But not alcohol.

Players caught using “drugs of abuse” are not disciplined for first offenses, mind you; baseball rightly values treatment over punishment. But at least a mechanism for disciplining repeat offenders is in place.

Which brings us to the Indians’ Shin-Soo Choo, who on Monday became the sixth major leaguer arrested on suspicion of DUI since Feb. 12.

An arrest is not a conviction. Choo is innocent until proven guilty, like anyone else in this country who is charged with a crime.

Yet, Choo likely will avoid suspension even if he is found guilty. Ditto for the five other players recently charged with DUI — the Indians’ Austin Kearns, Athletics’ Coco Crisp, Mariners’ Adam Kennedy, Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera and Braves’ Derek Lowe.

Commissioner Bud Selig refrained from suspending Tony La Russa when the Cardinals’ manager pleaded guilty to DUI in November 2007. And La Russa, who is part of management, is not even protected by the union.

What is baseball’s problem?

Why are steroid users, who risk harming no one but themselves physically, treated much more harshly than players arrested on charges of DUI, who risk doing great harm to others?

The answers are not as simple as they might appear.

First off, baseball views steroid use as a threat to the integrity of the sport. A DUI, on the other hand, is an example of off-duty misconduct, which is not normally subject to discipline by an employer.

The same penalties — 50 games for a first steroid offense, 100 games for a second, a lifetime ban for a third — simply do not apply.

Baseball, in theory, could try to prove that a player’s DUI conviction harmed his team by damaging ticket sales and TV ratings. But that would be a difficult legal argument to make.

The real issue is that baseball’s alcohol policy is more theory than reality. It is not “codified” under the sport’s joint drug treatment and prevention plan, which it runs in conjunction with the union.

Thus, a player arrested on DUI charges can voluntarily receive treatment through the plan, but not be disciplined under it.

In the case of Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who was arrested on DUI charges on Feb. 16, baseball effectively performed an intervention, requiring him to be evaluated by Employee Assistance Program physicians and attaching certain conditions to his return.

Cabrera already had received treatment for substance abuse on his own after a well-publicized incident near the end of the 2009 season, when police say he got into a fight with his wife after a night of drinking.

True, not everyone who is arrested on DUI charges has a drinking problem. But not everyone who is caught smoking a joint has a drug problem, either. Yet baseball, by regarding marijuana but not alcohol as a “drug of abuse,” draws a distinction between the two.

Players, while not subject to testing for “drugs of abuse,” are prohibited from using, possessing, selling and facilitating the sale or distribution of such substances. Anyone found to be in violation of the policy automatically enters the treatment and prevention plan.

Once that happens, a player is subject to immediate discipline if a four-person treatment board determines that he has failed to comply with his program. The first failure to comply results in a suspension of at least 15 games, but no more than 25 games. The penalties increase with subsequent offenses.

Though details about individual players are confidential, the Tigers’ Cabrera presumably is subject to those penalties; he is now part of the program. Under a more enlightened policy, he would have been put in the program after his first incident in ’09. If baseball considered alcohol a “drug of abuse,” the police report alone would have given the sport reasonable cause.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating that baseball trample a player’s rights. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s trampling a player’s rights to place him in a drug treatment and prevention program after he is arrested on a DUI charge.

If it’s a one-time mistake, fine; the player will incur no penalty. But if it happens again, then discipline is indeed in order. Just as it is for those who use marijuana. Just as it is for those who use cocaine and other “drugs of abuse.”

Once and for all, the use of alcohol should not be held to a more lenient standard.