Medicine has made advances. Miracles happen. Still, ruin is always one pitch away, especially if you are already making those pitches in pain.”

Bobby Ojeda, “The Glory and the Pain of Pitching

 

It’s almost impossible to be a stoner in the minors. Baseball’s hella straight until you get to the big leagues.

Ryan Tucker will tell you all about it.

Tucker is a former Florida Marlins reliever. He’s 30 now. His fastball still has a little movement on it, though not enough to keep him in a National League uni. The pitcher’s pro baseball journey is behind him, but his next trip is just starting: He’s starting up a cannabis business in California.

On the surface, baseball is the straightest of the four major sports. Below, it’s a different story.

That sounds crazy, considering baseball’s coyly repressive pot posture. When Tucker played in the late 2000s, the idea of openly dealing with cannabis was a left-field notion. Because on the surface, baseball is the straightest of the four major sports. On the surface. Below, it’s a different story.

In 2017, a pro athlete busting into the industry is no longer a shock. Here in Portland, Oregon, we’ve seen NBA Hall of Very Good candidate Cliff Robinson open his Uncle Spliffy store. Ricky Williams and his canna-friendly gym have gotten global media play. In mainstream sports circles, gold medal snowboarder Ross Rebagliati doesn’t have the name recognition of a ball-sport jock, yet his Ross’ Gold brand is worth more in Canadian dispensaries and glass shops in Canada than any Ollie he ever pulled off.

But in Major League Baseball, the family-friendly American sport, no one smokes weed. Allegedly. Wink. Nudge. Baseball’s drug of choice has long been greenies–stimulants, amphetamines–which until recently were dispensed openly, sometimes in jars next to the sunflower seeds in the clubhouse. By reputation, cannabis just wasn’t baseball’s thing.

So how does a reliever like Ryan Tucker get from Marlins Park in Miami to a cannabis dispensary in the California desert? It’s a trip as long and strange as a minor league bus ride.

Ryan Tucker was the Marlins' top pick in 2005. Three years later he pitched in the big leagues. Today he's opening a dispensary.

Twelve years ago Tucker was a first-round draft pick out of Southern California’s Temple City High School, in a San Gabriel Valley suburb of Los Angeles. For the next three years the promising pitcher with the prodigious fastball bounced around the Marlins’ minor league affiliates, training for The Show in quiet burgs like Zebulon, North Carolina, and Jupiter, Florida.

During that bush league odyssey, Tucker held fast to minor league baseball’s cardinal rule: To kill the pain of injury and the boredom of the bus-traveling life, consume all the alcohol and pills you need. But do not touch the weed.

In the minors, the rules are clear: Consume all the booze and pills you need, but don't touch the weed.

Minor league towns in the South were notorious pot-prohibition strongholds. And minor league baseball’s cannabis policy was no less forgiving. Even if Tucker happened to meet someone cool in Zebulon, North Carolina, Major League Baseball prohibited cannabis usage in both the minor and major leagues, but only subjected minor league players to random drug tests. Once you got to The Show, cannabis remained a banned substance—but baseball’s strong players union made sure random testing wasn’t allowed in the majors.

Greensboro and Jupiter were real slogs for Ryan Tucker. He didn’t exactly earned the descriptor “phenom” as a starting pitcher. But things changed in Zebulon, the Marlins’ AA affiliate. He began revising his worldview. Which is to say that he developed one. Baseball was a business. His business. He was Ryan Tucker Inc. He took better care of his body. The Carolina Mudcats manager tried him out of the bullpen. Suddenly his fastball caught fire. Opposing hitters recorded more outs and fewer runs.

“It all just clicked for me” in the bullpen of that AA club, Tucker recalled. He won five games, lost three, and compiled an ERA of 1.58 for the Mudcats. The Marlins named Tucker their minor league pitcher of the year. In 2008, the marquee club came calling. The Marlins brought Tucker up in early June. He caught a flight to Miami, pulled on a Marlins uniform, and beat the Cincinnati Reds 5-1 on a Sunday afternoon. He was 21 years old.

That’s when Ryan Tucker discovered one of the best-kept secrets in professional sports. Major league baseball players are on familiar terms with cannabis. Not just some. A lot of them.

“When you’re on the [major league] roster,” he told me recently, “you can use cannabis, and a lot of people do, openly.”

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Being a Pro Means Playing Hurt

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Tucker’s 2008 rookie card

After his taste of the majors in 2008, Tucker was eager to get back on the mound in 2009. A little too eager, perhaps. On one of the first days of spring training, Tucker landed awkwardly on his leg and tore up his knee. Surgery followed. He lost the entire 2009 season to rehab.

Still not yet 23, Tucker found himself adjusting his pitching motion to compensate for some pain that hadn’t quite healed. And that would cause another niggling injury. The Marlins kept him in the minors, bouncing between the class-AAA New Orleans Zephyrs and the class-A Jupiter Hammerheads. He was 1-3 with a 6.00 ERA in 23 relief appearances. Those are not numbers that get you called back to the big club. Tucker watched ballplayers he knew from Greensboro and Jupiter shoot past him to Miami.

The pressure mounted with the pain. At one point Tucker simply walked off the field in the middle of an inning.

Tucker had never been comfortable with painkillers. As a boy, his parents treated physical discomfort with massage and natural remedies. Getting used to the powerful pharmaceuticals that ballclubs dispensed in the training room to, say, make Tucker’s shoulder stop screaming, took unexpected levels of adjustment.

The pressure mounted with the pain, and the kid wasn’t really himself. At one point, Tucker simply walked off the field in the middle of an inning. “I had an attitude, because I felt like I didn’t want to be forgotten after that injury prone ‘09,” the pitcher told me.

By 2010 he had become just an extra arm in the bullpen. The Marlins waived him at the end of the season. The Texas Rangers put him in the bullpen in early 2011, but Tucker gave up an assload of runs and, more consistently than anything else, endured pain.

“My body didn’t hold up to the task,” Tucker said. In 2012, the Dodgers invited him to spring training. He started the season with the team’s AAA affiliate, the Albuquerque Isotopes. After some poor outings and a torn labrum, the Isotopes released him. By July 2012, he was done.

He had no idea what to do next.

“I was all-in on baseball,” Tucker told me. “I was a first round pick. Why would I have had a backup plan? My backup plan was: I love baseball.”

“I was someone who had 4 surgeries by age 26,” he said. “I was on a downward spiral to [having] no career path. I was headed into a depression.”

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MLB: Cannabis is Banned, Period

It makes some sense to regulate cannabis use in the minors. Bush league players are often in their teens, away from home from the first time, often living in a spare bedroom with local families in small, conservative towns. A player could get into real trouble, real fast, if the smell of skunk popped hot in a deputy’s nose. Besides, focus is damn near everything for a ballplayer trying to climb his way into the bigs. But once they pull on a Marlins uniform, or Yankee pinstripes, or Dodger blue, they’re free to blaze away in the privacy of their million-dollar homes. Unofficially. And, as Tucker says, many do.

'Marijuana is a banned substance at all levels of Major League Baseball.'
MLB Vice President Michael Teevan

So why are we not aware of the thriving cannabis culture within Major League Baseball?

I decided to ask Major League Baseball that question. I sent an email to Michael Teevan, MLB Vice President of Communications. Teevan seemed less than thriled to exchange information on this topic. I asked: “Would you mind explaining how testing and reporting differ between the minor leagues and MLB?”

He responded: “Marijuana is a banned substance under our drug programs.”

Did my man think I was gonna take that sentence and walk away happy? I followed up

“And, to be clear,” I wrote, “there’s no such thing as an ‘open secret’ around individual player use at the MLB level?”

“I don’t think the question below is all that clear, if you want to reword,” Teevan responded.

Then Teevan explained that there’s no random testing for cannabis at the major league level, but players who are found to have consumed it are put in a treatment program.

There’s a well known truism in professional sports: When you take the “random” out of random drug testing, you change the exam from a drug test to an I.Q. test.

Because there is no random test for it, cannabis is a de facto legal substance in major league baseball. When is the last time you heard of a big leaguer getting suspended for marijuana? That’s more of an NFL thing.

To be clear: It is not technically legal. If a player gives a team or league officials “reasonable cause” to suspect cannabis use, that player can be compelled to take a drug test.

Do Some Play Better Medicated?

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Hayhurst: Some played better.

My editor sent me an email linked to an old story about cannabis use in MLB, headlined “Some Better Toked Up.”

Whoa. That’s a thing one hears, but very rarely reads. In the 2014 story, author and former San Diego Padres pitcher Dirk Hayhurst recounted his experience with teammates who partook.

“I know a lot of guys who smoked when I was playing – and they’re still smoking now. People talk about smokeless tobacco being the big drug of abuse lately because of the Tony Gwynn death, but I would say just as many guys are smoking pot. Some of these guys are better players while high than they are when they’re leveled out. So I think that this drug isn’t holding a lot of people back. I know that would be a great narrative for soccer moms to say to their kids, but in my experience, a lot of guys who would otherwise be bouncing off the walls – anxious, frenetic balls of hyper activity – these guys play better and they’re more focused when they’re toked up.”

Hayhurst’s comments helped me restart my conversation with Teevan.

“Sorry to belabor this Leafly request,” I wrote. “But I figured out another way to ask the marijuana question. Here’s a quote that Dirk Hayhurst gave to CBS Sports in 2014: ‘It’s like a Cheech and Chong experiment up there. You can smoke so much pot. And baseball really knows that its players smoke a lot of marijuana. It honestly does. It pretends that it doesn’t.’ Is this statement true or not?”

Concise as ever, Teevan put it to rest.

“We have nothing to add regarding the statement attributed to Mr. Hayhurst,” he wrote. “Marijuana is a banned substance at all levels of MLB.”

Alright then. We’re done. Good night.

Baseball Ain’t So Straight

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High Times, 1980.

The greatest stoners in athletics history range over all kinds of sports. Giants like Olympic champion Michael Phelps. Should-be Hall of Famer Ricky Williams. Kevin Durant is a king among NBA kings. The Association has a long and illustrious association with cannabis, ranging from Kareem to A.I. to Bill Walton and Robert Parish. Baseball pretty much has only Bill Lee and Dock Ellis, and the occasional big-name old-timer (looking at you, Joe Pepitone) opting not to take his pot secrets to the grave. After that, things get a bit hazy. And not in a fun way.

MLB’s pot stance — co-engineered by baseball’s players union — sticks Ryan Tucker and hundreds of minor leaguers in profoundly difficult situations. The collectively bargained players union contract does not allow random drug tests—but that contract covers only big leaguers, not the thousands of scrubs toiling in the minors. And that leaves the hometown nine in Greensboro, Zebulon, and Moreno Valley with hard choices: The needle or the pill.

Or the Jameson and Budweiser (official sponsor of MLB). Back in the day, major league managers encouraged their players to hit the booze. “Pound that Budweiser, boys! Pound that ol’ Budweiser,” Seattle Pilots manager Joe Schultz often told his players—at least according to Jim Bouton in Ball Four.

But no CBDs for you, southpaw on the DL. Or for you, leadoff man who took a heater to the helmet. It’s Jeff Sessions pot theory, a relic from a time long before Jeff Sessions was even a thing.

During Ramirez’s brief renaissance with the Dodgers, the empathic stoner vibe was so intense in Mannywood you could practically catch a contact high.

And yet: Unbeknownst to you, Some of the most exciting baseball you’ve ever seen had cannabinoids firing its synapses. During their peak of popularity, slugger Manny Ramirez and Cy Young-winning pitcher Tim Lincecum were widely known for their love of da kine. The hip cats could smell what they were about from the cheap seats.

During Ramirez’s brief renaissance with the Dodgers, from 2008 to 2010, the empathetic stoner vibe was so intense in Mannywood you could practically catch a contact high.

And what West Coast sports fan can forget when “Let Timmy Smoke” entered the vernacular—and appeared emblazoned on the t-shirts of Giants fans strolling the Embarcadero to AT&T Park?

let-timmy-smoke-fans
Lincecum’s off-season cannabis citation in 2009 turned San Francisco fans into advocates. The Giants rode Timmy’s pitching to a World Series championship in 2010.

Recalling Timmy’s incredible run in the Bay Area, I called his agent at the Beverly Hills Sports Council. I left a voicemail asking whether Lincecum — one of my ten favorite ballplayers from this millennium — would talk cannabis with Leafly.

To no one’s surprise, that voicemail has not earned a response. And that’s fine. After a disappointing 2016 with the Angels, the 32-year-old Lincecum is still looking to catch on with a team as opening day approaches—so reviewing his favorite strains might not be the smartest business decision right now.

But it’s worth noting how oddly constrained are pro athletes, for all of their money and perks. You don’t think Timmy Lincecum, a Washington native, would love to talk baseball and weed with Leafly?

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The Post-Baseball Life

Transitioning into civilian life can be a struggle for any pro athlete, regardless of whether you’re a hall of famer or a career minor leaguer. They make movies about these things, but real life is more raw and mundane. It doesn’t come with a neat uplifting three-act narrative. Tucker’s experience was unexceptional. He began to dabble in coaching and instruction. Didn’t love it, but he kept doing it. He coached on youth teams and offered private instruction at indoor facilities. What he learned was that he loved playing the game but didn’t love coaching it.

Tucker, now 30, had his twin daughters to give his life shape. He watched other players struggle with the pressure. Some dealt with a life without baseball for the first time since kindergarten. Others staged comeback efforts. Many got through the grind on a mix of alcohol, painkillers, and caffeine.

“It was intense,” Tucker said, “but I never succumbed to it, to this day.”

Tucker alludes to the fact that cannabis played a role in his adjustment to life outside baseball. He’s not completely comfortable talking about it in public, but his experience was enough to turn his mind on the subject. “I do believe athletes in general can benefit greatly from a cannabinoid treatment plan, THC and CBD,” he said.

And now he’s turning that belief into action. Today he’s working with Green Street, the Los Angeles cannabis branding agency, to develop the Tucker Management Brand. In addition to cannabis marketing and licensing, the retired pitcher (2-3 lifetime, 8.14 earned run average) is developing a dispensary in Cathedral City, California, just east of Palm Springs, and a greenhouse cultivation facility in nearby Desert Hot Springs.

“I got into the cannabis industry because it saved my life,” Tucker said. “I remember asking myself, ‘Is this my future?’ And four or five years ago might have been a bit early to want to try this. But it went okay and I learned a lot, quick. I threw myself into the growing business and that transitioned into dispensaries.”

Double Standards and Cautionary Tales

Not long after our conversation, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued a report revealing that the phenomenal young Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez was high on booze and coke when he crashed his sport fishing boat last year, killing himself and two passengers. The tragic fate of that former Marlin—just six years younger than Tucker—had hung over our dialogue, unspoken.

There was a moment when I had Tucker on speaker phone that we had to take a minute so that he could gather himself; the emotion of pain overtook him. It’s not just ballplayers like Fernandez and himself that I heard in his weeping, but the broader suffering based on ignorance and double standards. Within the tears, too, I sensed the joy of cannabis lurking. It’s sad when good things go unseen.

Let Timmy talk.

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