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Bill Conlin | Juice or coke: Which era was worse?

I'M HERE to jog your short memories. Or to break some news to those of you unaware of Major League Baseball's scary cocaine trip through the first half of the 1980s.

I'M HERE to jog your short memories. Or to break some news to those of you unaware of Major League Baseball's scary cocaine trip through the first half of the 1980s.

And I'm going to ask you a question of social preference.

You have two buddies from high school who made it big in baseball. They invite you to go out when their teams come to town.

One is a doper. He takes you

to a party where a

virtual buffet of drugs is laid out -

cocaine, uppers, downers, speed, LSD. And booze, of course, lots of booze and lots of women. This was the scenario that

unfolded in 1985, when a Pittsburgh grand jury summoned 13 players - seven of them Pirates - and confronted them with evidence of the business they had done with former Phillies clubhouse caterer Curtis Strong and six other men charged with selling drugs to the ballplayers.

Your other buddy is a workout freak. His body is like the

armor on an Abrams tank. He doesn't take you to a party, he takes you to a gym. He tells you how he went from an outfielder who hit an occasional homer to a freak of un-nature now running with the league leaders. He tells you that taking the stuff not only promotes the rapid building of strength and body mass, but increased stamina, mental awareness, even better vision. He proceeds to go through an insanely intense workout. You are exhausted

after 10 minutes. Five minutes of recovery and you couldn't tell your buddy had even touched an apparatus.

The night after your first buddy took you to what turned into an open-date orgy of drug abuse, he and the half-dozen or so players also there are part of a listless early-game performance. He says a couple of greenies will get him through the game. One of the players comes bolting from the dugout at the end of an inning and puts a vicious tackle on the opposing team's mascot. He later admits while testifying at a drug trial he was high during that particular game and often played under the influence of a variety of drugs.

The night after your juiced outfielder pal took you to the gym, he goes 3-for-4 with a tape-measure homer, stolen base and dazzling catch. He offers to hook you up with a trainer who will make you feel better than you ever have felt in your life.

The 13 ballplayers summoned in 1985 were granted immunity for giving up Curtis Strong and the other dealers. It was a big, big case involving real felons, guys who pushed drugs born in the poppy fields of Afghanistan and the coca plants of Colombia and muled through Central America and Mexico. I don't remember a steroid family don getting whacked in a barber chair.

In February of 1986, commissioner Peter Ueberroth suspended the following players for 1 year: Lonnie Smith, Joaquin Andujar, Dale Berra, Enos

Cabell, Keith Hernandez, Jeff Leonard and Dave Parker. Hernandez, now a Mets broadcaster, admitted that his life had been completely taken over by a 3-year "hell" of cocaine addiction. Smith, a Phillies No. 1 pick and key performer for the 1980 world champions, detailed drug abuse that began while he was a Phils farmhand. He also fingered current Phillies broadcaster and then-outfield star Gary Matthews, current Phils substance-abuse counselor and then-pitcher Dickie Noles and reserve outfielder Dick Davis as users during his Phillies years.

The unprecedented bag of players suspended for 1 year by Ueberroth came with a significant Catch-22. The commissioner said his primary goal was to get the drugs out of baseball, not the players.

So . . . The suspensions would be waived if the players agreed to turn over 10 percent of their salaries to community drug programs, submit to random testing and perform 100 hours of community service. A similar deal was given to four players suspended for 60 days, including Al Holland, the closer who had arranged for Curtis Strong to set up his Ribs & Coke buffet in Philly. Their penalties would be waived if they gave up 5 percent of their salaries. Smith gave up $100,000 of his $1 million Royals salary. All 11 gave up the cash.

Ueberroth thought he would come away from baseball's worst scandal since the 1919 Black Sox with a comprehensive drug-testing agreement and penalties with teeth. What could he have been thinking?

The players association, led by rookie executive director Don Fehr, came away with no testing. Nada. The toking light was lit for another generation

of users and abusers.

Most of the accused dealers pleaded guilty. But Strong went to trial and a tidal wave of big names surfaced, shining a harsh light on the scope of baseball's dirtiest secret. The Chef was found guilty on 11 counts and served 4 years of a 12-year sentence. Even the Pirate Parrot, Kevin Koch, was implicated for introducing several players to cocaine dealers.

Ask yourself which is more damaging to baseball, felony use and abuse of recreational drugs, or the use and abuse of performance-enhancing anabolic steroids and human growth hormones?

You might protest, "But players who take steroids and HGH are cheating." The counter to that might be, "And players addicted to cocaine, speed, heroin, whatever, aren't cheating? Their diminished performance is certainly cheating fans out of the brand of baseball they pay to see."

I guess the central question becomes, would you rather see a juiced Barry Bonds hit a baseball into McCovey Cove? Or a strung-out Lonnie Smith putting a Brian Dawkins open-field hit on the Phillie Phanatic?

Tough questions. No easy

answers . . . *