The sad story of Scott Spiezio

Scott Spiezio was a mediocre baseball player who could really rise to the occasion. A good defensive first baseman with a so-so bat, he was nevertheless a key part of the Anaheim Angels’ 2002 World Series team. During the regular season he hit .285 with 12 home runs, and when injuries called for it, he slid across the diamond, filling in capably at third base. During the postseason, he went ona tear and hit .327 with three home runs.

In 2004 he signed a lucrative contract to play third base for the Seattle Mariners. His career quickly imploded, with only a .215 batting average in 2004. The next season, he sported a microscopic .064 batting average in 29 games and the Mariners released him in August.

In 2006, the St. Louis Cardinals gave him a chance as a bench player. He filled in at five positions: first base, third base, second base, and left and right field. He also hit well, and his clutch hitting in the postseason when other players faltered made him a fan favorite.

Unfortunately in 2007, the honeymoon ended. The 2007 Cardinals had a lot of off-field problems. First, manager Tony LaRussa was involved in an embarrassing DWI incident. Then pitcher Josh Hancock plowed into a tow truck at high speed on an interstate while driving drunk, killing himself. Then Spiezio abruptly left the team, checking himself into rehab for unspecified substance abuse problems.

Spiezio returned with a lot of fanfare. St. Louis fans are quick to remember past heroics and eager to forgive when someone makes an effort to right wrongs. In late January 2008, he spoke to St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Derrick Goold of ways to avoid making what he called “bad decisions,” and taking responsibility as an example-setter.

What Spiezio didn’t mention in that interview was that about a month earlier, in late December, he’d made at least one of those bad decisions. According to a California police report, he got behind the wheel of his BMW after drinking vodka, wrecked the car after driving erratically, and fled the scene. A neighbor then tried to help him, and that ended in a fight, with Spiezio throwing punches at the neighbor and slamming him into a wall.

On February 27, the story hit. Spiezio was wanted in California, facing six charges. The Cardinals promptly released him.

Unless there was an unusual provision in his contract, the Cardinals will pay Spiezio about $2.5 million to not play baseball this year. Over the course of his 10-year career, he’s already made nearly $17 million. He should be more than set for life. Even if that money is gone, this year’s salary should provide for him and his children for the rest of his life.

The question is whether he’s lost enough.

I don’t know what will happen next to Scott Spiezio. He had a good job with the Cardinals, a good organization where he fit in well and the fans loved him. Right now is a bad offseason to be unemployed. A lot of talented players are still trying to find work. Some of them have more baggage than Spiezio, but some don’t. Spiezio does have several things going for him: He’s young enough to still have two or three or more productive seasons left, plays five positions competently, he switch-hits and has some power. He probably can’t be an everyday player anymore, but there aren’t very many players who have his mix of skills and he could be a useful player coming off the bench for almost any team–if he can keep it all together.

I can see Spiezio landing on his feet and perhaps even ending up on a contending team. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to see him playing in the World Series again this year.

Staying clean and sober is the harder challenge. I know from watching my dad and others struggle with alcohol that the only way you overcome it is when you hit bottom and realize that unless you overcome the addiction, you will most likely lose absolutely everything that matters to you (if you haven’t already). And even then, it’s possible to relapse, however briefly. As far as anyone knew, former Cardinals catcher Darrell Porter had been clean and sober for the better part of 21 years when he died from side effects of recreational cocaine use in 2002.

I believe the Cardinals did the right thing by releasing Spiezio. It sends a much-needed message to him, the organization, and the fans that no matter how versatile and important you are, staying free of substance abuse is more important than playing baseball.

For Spiezio’s sake, I hope that whatever happened in California is an isolated incident and he is able to do whatever he has to do to keep it that way. History is littered with the names of good baseball players whose lives turned tragic in spite of what they accomplished on the field. There’s no need for him to become another one of them.

2016 update: A couple of months after I wrote this, Scott Spiezio signed with the Atlanta Braves as a free agent. They released him a week later. Spiezio never played baseball in the major leagues again. From time to time he makes promotional appearances in St. Louis, where fans still fondly remember his role in the 2006 postseason.

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