When the HBO Sports journalism show Real Sports hits the airwaves on Aug. 15, it will feature an in-depth segment on 1985's infamous Pittsburgh Baseball Cocaine Trials. The scandal marked one of the most shameful eras in baseball history, ranking with the 1919 Black Sox Scandal and the recent Congressional steroids hearings for its debauched ignominy.
No doubt it's an important story, but HBO really missed the boat on this topic. With the creative teams behind The Sopranos and Only in America: the Don King Story at its disposal, rather than opting for straight journalism HBO might have chosen a different route.
The Pirates' cocaine fiasco could be its own black comedy, 10 times darker than the cable network's previous hit, Six Feet Under, and with more story lines than The Wire. Besides, it would be a period piece that could have some fun with the music and styles of the time, while exploring how baseball's drug use mirrored coke-addled yuppie America during the heady Reagan era. Tentative series title: Get Your Coke Here: The Pirate Parrot Story.
Picture the camera creeping closely along the white baselines laid on the artificial turf of Three Rivers Stadium, with a doleful version of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" playing over the credits: "Take me out to the ball game, take me out for some blow." Meet the cast of players, those disturbed but lovable Pirates, with their cadres of fluorescent, bangle-clad baseball Annies and smarmy dealers, loitering in the clubhouse. I'm imagining a very Coen Brothers-esque camera move into the bathroom, where we see John Milner, in a stall, purchase two grams of toot for $200.
Watch coke-snorting, battery-ducking superstar Dave Parker (Ving Rhames) blow his chances for later induction into the Hall of Fame. All for some blow. See Chuck Tanner (Sir Ian McKellen), the oblivious, happy-go-lucky manager, try to hold the team together. Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos) does double duty for HBO as Dale Berra, the infielder who tosses away his career in pursuit of drugs. Things start heating up right from the series pilot, when Berra tries to pilfer cocaine from Tim Raines' uniform pocket, while simultaneously holding him at third base. (Raines disclosed in court that he routinely kept a gram of coke in his uniform back pocket and often snorted during games.)
You can imagine the dramatic tension building mid-season when the Mets arrive in town, lead by Keith "Captain Coke" Hernandez (played by himself, after his TV work on Seinfeld). Things get really tight when Hernandez' all-consuming habit dries out the town and Lee Lacy can't get his hands on his usual supply of nose candy due to the excesses of the Mets.
And playing a central part, of course, is former Pirate Parrot Kevin Koch (casting undetermined at this time), who was implicated in buying cocaine and introducing some players to a drug supplier.
Watch the Commish, Peter Ueberroth, try to preserve some of baseball's dignity by suspending 11 players. (Of course, all avoid serious sanctions by donating a small portion of their 1986 salaries to a drug program and performing community service.) At the time, Ueberroth asked players to submit to voluntary urine tests, but was stymied by the Players Association, presaging the current but different drug mess that baseball finds itself in.
It's a pertinent story for today's era, obviously. And if they can keep Entourage on the tube, why not this? Moreover, we live in the land that the New South considers the Rust Belt, that New Yorkers consider a Midwestern backwater, and that most people have forgotten even has a professional baseball team. Given the circumstances, I suppose there's no such thing as bad publicity.