Associated Press writer Kristie Rieken probably doesn't get the respect she deserves. No one has watched more terrible Astros baseball over the past three seasons. Well, maybe McTaggart, but Rieken is right there. She's always there, in post-game pressers, in the locker room, churning out quality content.
Her highlight to this early season so far is this article. In it, Rieken gets Jon Singleton to open up about his struggles last season and even provides an explanation for his entire year. I'd recommend you to take the time and read her entire piece, but for our discussion here, this passage is most relevant:
"I went through some slight anxiety, some depression because I wasn't being successful," he said. "That was definitely difficult and that drove me to drink."
He admits to abusing alcohol as a substitute for marijuana, getting drunk almost every day and "waking up hung over every morning."
Addiction is hard to talk about. For some, it shows a weakness of character. Why can't you just stop drinking after two or three? Why not just have one drink? If your baseball career is on the line, why can't you not smoke weed every day?
But, for people with addictive personalities, the struggle is much, much tougher than that. It's a daily fight to stay sober and it's not an easy one. Thinking this is just about one trip to rehab and he's cured misses the underlying psychological causes.
That's why Deadspin took the Astros to task for this:
OK. Wait. So Singleton started as a guy who smoked way too much, developed an alcohol dependency that hurt his play on the field due to baseball's punitive stance toward weed, and now he's just left to deal with his troubles on his own? By this account, Singleton is someone who definitionally has a substance abuse problem, and yet his team and MLB don't seem to think he needs to be in a program of any kind. This is essentially the same thing as letting a diabetic prospect get along without insulin because he's pretty sure he can take care of it through willpower.
The thrust of Deadspin's criticism is spot-on. In a vacuum, the Astros should absolutely be doing everything in their power to keep Singleton addiction free. What Deadspin does, though, is try to make the case that marijuana isn't as bad as alcohol. That driving Singleton to drink was worse than letting him smoke weed every day.
If Singleton struggles with addiction, though, he'd self-destruct no matter what substance he was using. Look no further than Ken Caminiti. There were all sorts of colorful stories about the former Astros third baseman drinking six-packs of beer before games and his friends and teammates just laughing it off. Oh, that's just Cammy. Yet, Caminiti spiraled. He started using performance-enhancing drugs. When baseball spit him out, he graduated to harder drugs, ultimately leading to his death.
If the Astros or the Padres had been able to help him early, shouldn't they have done everything they could to keep him clean? But, baseball's tricky history with alcohol only made that worse. If Mickey Mantle can booze all night and still hit home runs, it's not a problem. If Boomer Wells can throw a perfect game hung over, there's no issue. Keep beer in the clubhouse for post-game buffets. It's fine.
Only after Cardinals reliever Josh Hancock was killed while driving intoxicated during the 2007 season was the issue of alcohol in the clubhouse talked about. It led to many teams banning it, but it didn't stop Tony La Russa from waking up at a stop light drunk in spring training.
Like I said, baseball has a complicated history with alcohol abuse.
From the Astros end, there's a lot to unpack. I've been thinking about the counseling angle quite a bit. I don't know how I feel about the Astros yet. On the one hand, they should do everything they can to help Singleton, right? But, how much can they do? His job dictates a non-traditional schedule. What kind of counseling could he get regularly? He COULD have someone travel with him, but is it the team's responsibility to provide him someone?
I'd go so far as to say the team can't. There are hard and fast rules about what a team can give players outside their contracts. That's why the Roy Oswalt bulldozer thing had to be finessed a bit. When teams have signed Japanese stars, they usually include a translator as part of the contract details.
Then, there's the question of how much the Astros want to single Singleton out. He's one of a vast sea of organizational employees. How much special treatment do they give one guy? Do they do that for all players who drink too much? Dealing with 21, 22 year old kids, that might get very, very expensive. Are they operating under assumptions about "no one is bigger than the team" here? Do they not want to set a precedent like this?
I'm not trying to defend them, mind you. Just raising questions about their motivations. I don't think the decision is quite as black and white as Deadspin made it out to be (I know, I'm shocked too).
Maybe it should be, though. If one of their employees needs help, maybe the team should do everything it can to help him, no matter what.
The Astros, to their credit, issued this statement Monday night:
"We applaud Jon for the courage he has shown in tackling this issue head on. He has displayed a great deal of maturity and commitment over the past year and has the full support of the Astros organization. He is on the right track for his baseball career, and, more importantly, for his life. We are very proud of Jon."
Ultimately, this is about a baseball team and a baseball player. If the baseball player can help that baseball team, you can believe they'll do everything they can to make sure he does. The Reds allegedly wouldn't give Josh Hamilton his per diem money that first year in Cincinnati, because they were afraid he'd go spend it on drugs. The Rangers gave Mickey Rivers' game checks to his wife because he'd take them to the track and gamble them away.
But, all the research shows that it's going to be very, very hard for Singleton to stay clean and sober without help. It's not a simple matter of willpower here. He's in for a daily struggle, on top of the impossibly hard climb to the top of the baseball world. Maybe baseball will be a break for him. But, he will still have those dark nights, with the lights off, when addiction comes calling.
What I sincerely hope is that the young man has help for those moments.