The pay is so low it should be illegal. The bus rides are so long, they are illegal. And unlike their well-compensated and chartered-flight-riding counterparts in Major League Baseball, minor league ballplayers can’t even get away with smoking marijuana.
Before a minor-leaguer can earn $12,000 a year for a spring and summer of cramming into buses for 13-hour rides with other hopefuls, their pee is tested. An end to that ignominy is just one of the many, many benefits of promotion to the show.
When you’re on a big-league team’s 40-man roster, you can smoke all you want with no fear of discovery via a drug test—and, according to one former professional baseball player, many, many do.
While drug use exists in every pro-sports league, no American institution has had a bigger public-relations problem with chemical cocktails than baseball. But it has had nothing to do with weed.
For decades, amphetamines were routinely and openly dispensed in major-league dugouts—in a way very similar to how NFL players would line up like cattle to receive injections of opiate-based painkillers. And for more than a decade, steroid use was rampant in MLB.
While (most) fans and (all) owners had no problem with soaring home-run totals and the accompanying revenue, pressure from (of all places) avowed steroid user Jose Canseco and the strict moralists sitting in Congress forced baseball to clean up its act. But since mandatory testing was instituted in 2003, most of the onus for “honest baseball” has fallen on the young and the marginal.
Unlike, say, the grown men sacrificing their brains and bodies for the National Football League, professional baseball players are not subjected to ritualized privacy-invasion by a patronizing, would-be all-seeing-eye of a league office. NFL players are drug-tested once a year—unless a review of their urine reveals signs of something like legal cannabis use, in which case they can expect to be tested many times throughout the year.
For that reason, Florida Marlins prospect Ryan Tucker—a first-round draft pick in 2005—kept it clean while bouncing around from dusty town to dusty town in the minors. Called up to pitch in the bigs in 2008 as a 21-year-old, he found that a bunch of his millionaire teammates were not-so secret stoners.
“When you’re on the [major league] roster, you can use cannabis,” he told Leafly News, “and a lot of people do, openly.”
Just how openly? Another former big-leaguer, Dirk Hayhurst, referred to the highest echelon of pro baseball as a “Cheech and Chong experiment.”
And just like in the NBA, where former players swear that cannabis use helped clear some athletes’ minds from stress and pressure and sharpen their focus, some MLB players swear pot use is a boon—and to some extent, both condoned and accommodated.
Some big-league clubs, Hayhurst claimed, will actually promote a player who smokes pot to the big club in order to avoid the random drug testing at the minor-league level.
An MLB spokesman refused to address Hayhurst’s assertions to Leafly, and there’s nothing resembling solid data to back his or Tucker’s stories up. But there are some prominent examples—and chief among them is the athlete who, at the time, was the game’s best young pitcher.
In 2009, San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum, who had won the Cy Young Award as the game’s best at his position, was pulled over in Washington state for speeding. As Lincecum rolled down the window of his Mercedes, the state trooper smelled marijuana. Asked to hand it over, Lincecum did—all 3.2 grams of it (a bowl pack short of an eighth) and a pipe. He was assessed a civil infraction, paid a fine—and then became pro sports’ poster boy for pot use.
To this day, you can see “Let Timmy Smoke” t-shirts at Giants games. It didn’t hurt that in the season immediately after Lincecum’s pot bust, the Giants won the World Series—and all of their fans smoked weed. Lots of it.
Even minor-leaguers who do use marijuana aren’t necessarily punished for it—at least right away.
In 2015, the San Francisco Giants (obviously) used a first-round draft pick to select southern California native Phil Bickford—after Bickford tested positive for marijuana in a pre-draft drug screening. However, late last year, Bickford—now with the Milwaukee Brewers—was suspended for 50 games after testing positive for a “drug of abuse” for a second time.
Had he made it to the bigs, he wouldn’t have been screened, but since he’s still a minor-leaguer, he is paying a price.
As these episodes demonstrate, weed use isn’t something major-leaguers want to telegraph.
When Lincecum’s career started to take an ill turn in 2012, marijuana use—and not the fact that he was aging, and athletes tend to do poorly as they age—was fingered as the cause. At the same time, their rules are structured to allow them to consume cannabis as much as they please. And, clearly, they do—with no discernible ill effects.
As for Ryan Tucker? He was out of baseball before he turned 27, the victim of bad luck in the form of knee problems and four surgeries. Now? He’s in the marijuana business, opening up a dispensary in Cathedral City, California, in the desert near Palm Springs.
If any major-leaguers live in the area, they might become his customers. There’s very little stopping them.