On Labor Day of 1955 my family moved to New Jersey. That October, as I walked to the school bus a neighbor stopped his truck, leaned out the window and asked whom I was rooting for in the World Series, the Yankees or the Dodgers. Nine years old, I tried to guess what answer would please Mr. Miller the most. I guessed right. Yankees! Thus began a relationship that continues to this day, momentarily melancholy as it may be after this season’s playoff loss to the Astros. As a boy growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, there were Octobers of great excitement and happiness as Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi, and all my other heroes walloped “Ballantine Blasts” out of Yankee Stadium, the House That Ruth Built (after beer baron Jacob Ruppert purchased the team). Knickerbocker was the beer of the New York Giants and Schaefer a sponsor of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Schaefer sign on the Ebbets Field scoreboard would light up with an “H” or an “E” to help those scoring at the ballpark or at home. Later the Mets arrived and adopted Rheingold as their official beer with their own glowing “H” & “E”.
October was always a time to follow ballplayers in their joy and despair. At least until October despair became trivial three years ago when our son and brother, William, succumbed to what proved to a fatal heroin overdose. That loss brought my wife and me to the Mall in Washington DC this past October 4th. We joined 30,000 other people from all across the country to participate in the Unite To Face Addiction rally. The rally made history in part by declaring the event “The Day the Silence Ends.” No more will any of us tolerate or accept secrecy, shame and silence about the disease of addiction. Celebrities from all walks of life were there to share their stories of recovery, to reinforce the message that recovery is possible, and to speak out against the stigma of the disease. We were reminded again and again that there are 23 million Americans in long term recovery from alcoholism and substance use disorder. Among those speaking was former Yankee (and yes, Dodger, Giant, and Met) Darryl Strawberry. His struggles have been well documented, but there was Darryl looking fit and trim, speaking persuasively from the heart about his recovery and proud of the two recovery centers he has established. A ballplayer offering a different kind of hope in October.
Later, the rally included a photomontage of celebrities who lost their battle with addiction. There was my boyhood hero, Mickey Mantle, bigger than life, again, taking one more swing on a giant screen.
The following day was Advocacy Day. Nearly 700 people from all over the country went to Capitol Hill to talk with Congressmen and Senators in the interest of making elected officials more aware and proactive in the fight against addiction in all its ghastly guises. We were part of the New York delegation that spent time being well received in Senator Chuck Schumer’s office.
As we gathered outside the office for a quick “team photo” and goodbyes, I checked my e-mail. There was a message from my friend Mark, also a Yankee fan and a bit of a baseball historian, letting me know that CC Sabathia had just entered an alcohol treatment program.
My mind went back to Mickey Mantle. Then to Billy Martin. The more I thought about it, the more Yankee names came up: Dwight Gooden, Whitey Ford, Steve Howe, Jim Bouton, the Sultan of Swat himself, Babe Ruth, and once again, Darryl. Men whose lives may have even been celebrated as real men who could drink hard and play hard at a time when there was less discrimination over a swing and a swig. Men whose substance use was denied or protected, sometimes even by the sportswriters who sat at the bar with them. How many more Yankees are there I don’t even know about? How many ballplayers all across the game?
Now there is one more. But there is something different this time. CC Sabathia is to be commended. He’s not hiding. To me he’s a hero for saying, “It hurts me deeply to do this now, but I owe it to myself and to my family to get myself right.” No silence. No shame. Just honesty in the first important step on what one hopes will be his road to recovery. Honesty in making that first step more important than anything else in his life. We owe him the same understanding and compassion we would offer him if he were dealing with any other life threatening disease. Not everyone believes that, of course. Our culture remains primitive and judgmental when it comes to alcohol and substance use disorder. Someday soon one hopes we see he is the kind of role model our kids need, a new kind of October champion.
CC is helping spread the message we heard on the Mall. The silence needs to end. The silence will end. 30,000 people were there to change the attitude of America about a dread disease. We will spread our message. We WILL prevail. If we build it they will come. Thanks for your help CC.