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Rangers' Compassion for Embattled Washington Rare, Appropriate

Mar 18, 2010 – 3:53 PM
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Kevin Blackistone

Kevin Blackistone %BloggerTitle%

Ron WashingtonEarlier this month in a Virginia suburb of the nation's capital, the Obama Administration's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, told the 53rd annual United Nations meeting on global drug policy that the United States' new drug control strategy, expected to be published soon, will focus more on eradicating drug abuse through treatment of abusers rather than imprisonment of them.

It all goes along with the new administration's view, as Vice President Joe Biden reiterated last year at Kerlikowske's confirmation hearing, that drug addiction is a disease and not a crime. It deserves compassion, Biden suggested then, which, we learned Wednesday, is what the Texas Rangers extended to their manager Ron Washington since he confessed to using cocaine last year.

Who knows what Washington was thinking when he foolishly and dangerously (cocaine can kill, which is why we have the federal Len Bias law) chose to do a line, or whatever his method of ingesting coke was. All we know for certain is that he wasn't thinking clearly, or as if his brain were already on drugs.

We're talking, after all, about a journeyman major leaguer, who, after 28 years in the game, finally reached the pinnacle in his career by earning a skipper's job with the Rangers. We're talking about a guy who, at 54, didn't look like or necessarily fit the aesthetic of a major league manager. He looked then like all the baseball years had worn on him making him look older than his driver's license claimed. Washington's black, too, which made his ascendancy even more remarkable.

Against that backdrop, Washington's dalliance with an illegal drug was absolutely inexplicable because he risked so much, all that he'd scrapped for for so long. He was too old and possessed too slim of a resume as a manager to mount a comeback story. His career, quite frankly, was about to end.

As expected, there was an immediate collective knee jerk from commentators and casual chirpers around the country that the Rangers should've kicked Washington to the curb, post haste. How's he going to police his clubhouse? What kind of example does he set? How can baseball of all sports embrace a druggie?

The only thing Washington had going for him was what more employees like him deserve -- an understanding employer with a heart rather than a hammer.

Washington has plenty of company in this country. A 2007 study by the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that there were 17.4 million illegal drug users age 18 and older and that 13.1 million of them -- 75 percent -- were regularly employed. It also estimated that there were among us 55.3 million adult binge drinkers (people who drink alcohol with the intent of getting drunk) and nearly 80 percent of them were employed.

The only thing [Ron] Washington had going for him was what more employees like him deserve -- an understanding employer with a heart rather than a hammer. Substance abuse is a firable offense in most places and the fired have few rights. All they have is prayer. Washington's fortunately was answered. It should've been.

Washington doesn't represent most drug users, according to national data. Seventy percent of drug users are white, 14 percent are black and 13 percent are Hispanic.

But the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, released a report in 2007 on the U.S. state prison population that showed 29 percent of inmates for drug offenses were white, 20 percent were Hispanic and 45 percent were black.

White drug addicts have been more likely to go to the Betty Ford Center; black drug abusers have been more likely to go to jail. That's not fair or smart.

That's one reason that just on Wednesday, while Washington's sad tale was coming to light, the Senate approved legislation to reduce the disparity in sentences for possessing crack and powder cocaine. Currently, crack cocaine users, who are predominantly black, get the same mandatory jail time as someone with 100 times that quantity of powder cocaine. The new law would reduce the ratio to at least 18 to 1. A similar bill is pending in the House.

It's too bad it's taken so long for such enlightenment. It's refreshing to see the Rangers not wait for the rest of the country before doing the right thing.

Nolan Ryan"We decided to treat Ron the way we do the rest of our employees," Rangers' president Nolan Ryan told ESPN Radio Dallas on Thursday, "that if they have a problem we try to give them the benefit of treatment, get them diagnosed ... so we chose to pursue that and have him go through MLB's program. We felt like the way that the club was playing and was responding to Ron, and the way he was growing as a manager, we felt like we wanted to give him an opportunity to continue to manage and he assured us it was a one-time situation."

Washington didn't lie about his problem, though a lot of observers immediately dismissed that one-time slip claim. He didn't pull some stunt like so many ballplayers who denied using performance-enhancing drugs, which, by the way, are a different can of worms from illegal recreational drugs. Those cheat the game and deprive the truly ill who need them to better or prolong their lives, not their play on the field. Whether Washington was experimenting or an addict doesn't really matter.

The only thing that is troubling to me is that the guys who toil for Washington face stiffer penalties if they admit to the same stupid judgment. His All-Star outfielder Josh Hamilton, an admitted drug addict, was suspended for the 2004 season when he was in the minors. Washington, as part of baseball management, was forced only to partake of the league's drug treatment program. Discipline for people in management is left to the team's and the league's discretion. Everyone in the game should be subject to the same sanctions, however. What's good for the CEO should be good for the assembly line worker, and vice versa.

But neither Washington nor Hamilton was in need of more punishment than what public embarrassment dropped on them. Like most drug abusers, they were in need of help, not the hoosegow. That was something the crafters of Reagan's War on Drugs never understood and the writers of Obama's new drug offense apparently do.
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