The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven: A Book As Addicting As The Drug Itself

Kevin Koch in costume in 1979, the inaugural year of the Pirate Parrot. Copyright Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

SEPTEMBER 13, 1985

“Wille who?”—Adam Renfroe, defense attorney for Curtis Strong

“Wille Mays.  I went into his locker and got it,”— John Milner, Major League baseball player

“Willie Mays?”

“The great one, yes,”—John Milner

Do yourself a favor, stop reading this and get a copy now.  It will take about six hours to consume The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven:  How A Ragtag Group Of Fans Took The Fall For Major League Baseball.  But it may take a lifetime to forget. 

The book is written by Aaron Skirboll, but it feels like it’s a story being told among friends at a bar.   The story is covered from all angles:  the cocaine dealers are covered in depth, the Federal agents get to tell their story, and even the players–some of the biggest names in the game, all of whom were given immunity, are here in every sorrid detail.

Nearly twenty-five years ago, the Pittsburgh Drug Trials commenced.  It was September 5, 1985.  By the time Skirbolls’ book gets to the trial, the story has been well detailed, but we never expected how dark the trials would actually be.  It’s very obvious that the reader is being made to feel the utmost sorrow for the ‘jock sniffers’ that, through the Pirate Parrot, had supplied Major League players with cocaine.  

Former Pirates reliever Rod Scurry was a key figure in the downward spiral of Pirates baseball.  The talented lefty was a first round pick who had a wicked curveball and a wicked drug habit to match.  

Perhaps the most telling Scurry story is the Pittsburgh Pirates cover-up of his coke induced panic attack.  After coke was delivered in a baseball glove to his hotel room, Scurry went on a snorting spree and wound up dismantaling his hotel room’s television set.  The mess would be masked into a cover story by the Pirates management that Scurry had approached Chuck Tanner and asked for help.  It would land Scurry in the pitchers mound equipped Gateway Rehab Center to recover from his addiction in 28 days.  Another riveting tale is that of Scurry leaving the Pirates dugout to search for drugs and actually ending up with Scurry sitting on  Kevin Connolly’s couch.  When Kevin turned on the tv, he was shocked to see the game in the late innings when Scurry would typically be called upon to pitch.  He heard the announcer say:

“It’s the ninth inning, and there’s a lefty in the on-deck circle.  I wonder why Scurry isn’t warming up?”   

One of the favorite characters is Defense Attorney Adam Renfroe, Jr.  The lawyer read part of Pirates outfielder John Milner’s grand jury transcript in which Milner described a concoction called red juice from Mays’ locker.  It was a shocker.  Renfroe was a showboat going after the players the only way he knew how.  But it was a difficult case that was certainly doomed from the start and his defendant was in trouble the moment the first witness stepped off the stand.  Obviously Curtis Strong looked bad the minute Lonnie Smith said he was trying to get clean and Strong contacted him and sent him coke through the mail.

The damning testimony of star outfielder Dave Parker rocked the city.  Parker’s name became attached to the drug trials as much as he was hooked on the drug.  His comeback from the drug was incredible as he led teams to two more World Series, but Parker is looked at in a much different light.  I never knew that Parker matter-of-factly called out teammates Bill Madlock and Willie Stargell.  Like I said, the book is addictive on many levels. 

It’s hard to fathom that two friends who played softball together on a team aptly called the High Rollers turned into such key members of one of the darkest periods in Pittsburgh sports history.  The story of Kevin Koch and Dale Shiffman going to the very first Pirate Parrot audition together is such an interesting start to the book and after you devour the first chapter, the book simply kicks into teeth numbing high gear.   

Koch lands the gig as the Parrot while Shiffman acted as paparazzo.  And sadly, just a few years later Koch would be getting a wire strapped to his chest by FBI agents in a Bethel Park shopping center parking lot so he could narc out his Baldwin High buddy Shiffman. 

The author sketches the reader right into the Grant Street courtroom. 

The descriptions and details of defense attorney Renfroe are a rush.  The flashy Renfroe (who in 1986 would admit to a 16-year coke addiction) captivated the packed courtroom on a daily basis with his ability to basically make his client, the drug dealer, ‘vanish’ as he attacked the Goliath known as Major League baseball like nobody thought possible.

Dale Shiffman was indicted on 111 counts. He pled guilty to 20 and was sentenced to 12 years in the federal penitentiary. 

Curtis Strong spent all but two days short of four years in prison.

Kevin Connolly was sentenced to two years at FCI-Loretto.

Thomas Balzer served thirteen months at FCI-Allenwood.

Robert McCue was charged on 13 counts.  Milner and Dale Berra were the only players that testified.  McCue was sentenced to 10 years at FCI-Allenwood.  During McCue’s trial Judge Cohill used the term “managerial sloth” to describe the cause of damage to baseball as he called out Major League Baseball’s managers. In response  Chuck Tanner would tell the Post-Gazette the following…

“How can I look back with any regrets?  I didn’t know anything about it.  What did I do wrong?”—Chuck Tanner 

Shelby Greer was sentenced to 12 years.  Jeff Mosco was sentenced to 4 years at FCI-Loretto.

No baseball players were put in jail. 

This book is perfect for all baseball fans.  It’s not hard to understand what impact the drug trials had on the game we love.  A hard line stance could have erased the steroid era.  But regardless, it still provided this Pirates fan with knowledge that, shamefully, I was not completely aware of, or simply wasn’t interested in knowing. 

Twenty-five years ago, Pirates fans weren’t staying away from baseball because of an owner, no it was entirely different….

“I’ll be damned if I’m gonna support any player’s drug habit.”–Taxi driver Joe Statchowski

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Stop reading.  Go get the book

The Pirates finished 57-104 in 1985.  43.5 games off the NL East pace.  Attendance was 735,900.  “Baseball is now on a course that will remove any threat of any widespread-or perhaps any-use of such substances in the future.”  Said GM Joe L. Brown in October

The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven on Facebook

Christian Broadcasting Network:  Dale Shiffman When Baseball Goes Bad

“I used to literally run out on the field during batting practice, and play right field and shag fly balls. It was a dream come true — just going down to the big league park and hanging out,” says Dale.

Dale was living his dream. He wasn’t just working at the ball park. He was hanging with the guys. Life seemed great, but Dale wanted to be one of the guys. He never thought of dealing drugs until he was approached by some of the players. He was eager to oblige.

“It was one of those deals where they’d say, ‘Hey man can you get us some coke?’ So I just started checking around and before I knew it, things went from zero to 60 real quick.”

Dejavu: Drug Abuse Slams Major League Baseball Again

City Paper

Dale Shiffman

A Grandpa’s Influence.  (Rod Scurry’s son)

Topics: Dale Berra, Dave Parker, John Milner, Pirates Blog, Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven, Pittsburgh Drug Trials, Pittsburgh Pirates, Rod Scurry, Willie Mays

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