Let’s get our welcome to the work week with a bit of a downer, a canary in the coalmine of the consciousness, if you will. Thirty years ago today, former White Sox right-hander Francisco Barrios died of a heart attack brought on by the abuse of drugs and alcohol. He was 28.
A few years earlier, Barrios had been a key pitcher on a shockingly good White Sox team, an out-of-nowhere assemblage that went 90-72 on the strength of a then-impressive 192 home runs. They were called “The South Side Hit Men,” and for as long as their run lasted—until mid-August of that year—the club was the feel-good hit of the summer, narrated by Harry Caray.
Barrios wasn’t great that year, but led the staff in innings pitched with 231.1. Flash forward four years and one Tommy John surgery and Barrios, who had brawled with teammates and been arrested on a narcotics charge, had been released. He was trying to make a comeback in his native Mexico when his heart gave out.
Barrios wasn’t a star and he wasn’t even a particularly good pitcher, but he was one of the first players to succumb to what would prove to be, just a few years later, an epidemic of drug abuse in the major leagues. Players would do jail time. Some, including Rod Scurry, Steve Howe, Alan Wiggins, and Eric Show, would eventually die young as a result of their dalliance with drugs.
It wasn’t clear to the public at the time, but Barrios was a signpost on the road to a darker place. Those on the inside must have known, but how many did anything about it? Who spoke up?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. It is possible that there were interventions that we have never heard about, but I also like to think that somewhere, even today, there is someone lying in darkness, thinking of the toll that baseball’s cocaine years exacted, unable to sleep because of his troubled conscience.
Parenthetically, Baseball’s acquiescence to the drug culture—the organization did not react until after the problem had become both pervasive and public—precisely presaged its tardy and halfhearted response to the influx of performance-enhancing drugs into the sport.