Safe at home: Bernie Carbo shares his substance abuse struggles

The retired Red Sox slugger speaks at the Tabernacle.

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On Oct. 22, 1975, Boston Red Sox slugger Bernie Carbo answered the prayers of the Fenway faithful with a pivotal home run that led to a World Series win for his team.

On Feb. 23, 1993, as he recalls it, God answered Bernie Carbo’s prayers about his life gone horribly wrong. Mr. Carbo spoke to about 100 people at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs on Monday night about the effect of alcoholism and addiction on his promising life as a baseball star. He was the principal speaker at a meeting sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association.

Event proceeds will go to Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) recovery programs and to Learn2Cope, a nonprofit that helps families dealing with addiction and recovery. Both organizations are part of an ongoing campaign to counter drug addiction on the Island.

Mr. Carbo’s appearance drew both fans of his achievements and Island residents locked in struggles of their own or with addiction bedeviling family members, but Mr. Carbo and Christine Todd, a Dukes County commissioner who introduced him, were single-minded about dealing with a nationwide drug epidemic that has not spared the Island.

“This year in Massachusetts, 39 people a week die from drug overdoses,” Ms. Todd told the audience. “On the Island, four people have died so far this year, but I know that others have died [from drug overdoses who were] not documented as overdose cases,” Ms. Todd told the audience.

Ms. Todd has been a galvanizing agent for community antidrug efforts on the Island. Her social media plea for funds to pay for rehab for her 24-year-old daughter and efforts to form chapters of organizations such as Break the Silence and Learn2Cope have brought focus on the issue here. Representatives of both groups were on hand Monday night, handing out literature detailing the tools offered by their groups.

“When I moved here 17 years ago with my kids, I was guilty of believing that that the problems of the larger world would not cross the water,” she said in remarks introducing Mr. Carbo.

Mr. Carbo has devoted his life for the past 23 years to spreading his recovery message that a relationship with Jesus Christ is responsible for his clean and sober life. Speaking with the Times before his presentation, Mr. Carbo said audiences “come to see the ballplayer, but they leave with the message.”

Many did come to see a Boston sports legend. James Riley, 85, was at the game, won by a Carlton Fisk home run that Mr. Fisk willed to stay fair in the 12th inning of the contest regarded by many as the greatest World Series game ever played. “I’ve waited 42 years to say thank you,” Mr. Riley said.

Bob Beal Jr. and his wife Brenda, seasonal Campground residents, brought a bat for Mr. Carbo to sign. “That’s one of my bats,” Mr. Carbo exclaimed.

“It sure is. It’s a game bat you gave to my dad in the mid-1970s. I wanted you to sign it so we can send it to my son John, a Coast Guard lieutenant serving in the Persian Gulf,” Mr. Beal said.

The Beals, signed bat in hand, moved off, and Mr. Carbo began moving around the Tabernacle, introducing himself before his remarks.

In his message on Monday night, Mr. Carbo, 69, described how a 17-year-old high schooler became a first round major league draft pick, reached the major leagues at 22 and became the National League Rookie of the Year in 1970. Mr. Carbo was in select company. Fewer than one percent of high school players are drafted by major league teams, let alone play at the major league level.

Baseball was his life. “People say to me, ‘But you were a good kid, didn’t drink or smoke,’ and that’s true. In the pros, I was a kid playing baseball with men,” he said, noting that his drinking and drug use took off in his few minor league seasons. “I remember playing in Hampton, Va., and went to the same restaurant every day, and a waitress told me she thought I was an alcoholic, at 19 years old.”

Mr. Carbo would play 12 years in the Major Leagues for six teams, all eager to see him return to his rookie-year accomplishments.

“I played more than 1,000 big league games, and I was high for all but one of them,” he recounted, noting that daily use of alcohol, pills, and cocaine was his regimen of misery. Of his dramatic pinch-hit three-run homer in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, he said, “That home run was a life dream come true, one every kid dreams of, but I cried that night after the game. I was miserable.”

The misery would continue for another 14 years. In December 1993, following a divorce, the suicide of his mother, and his father’s death two months later, Mr. Carbo rigged his car with a hose from the exhaust and went to his house for a last beer and marijuana joint.

“The phone rang. That day was Christmas Eve, and Bill Lee [former Red Sox teammate and frequent Island visitor] called to see how I was doing. I told him I didn’t  think I would make it through the night. He called Ferguson Jenkins, then Sam McDowell [former teammates], and Sam got me into rehab.”

In rehab, Mr. Carbo met an old Baptist preacher who asked him to admit he was an addict and alcoholic, and told him to turn his life over to Jesus Christ.

That process, called “a moment of clarity” in recovery circles, was the beginning. Mr. Carbo committed his life to his God, and has been combining his baseball reputation and his message of spiritual renewal and freedom from substances.

He works with young people, teaching “baseball and the Bible,” how to hit a baseball and how to live drug-free. “God had me hit that home run. Part of his plan for me.”

Mr. Carbo is descended from coal miners and Detroit steelworkers. He uses the pragmatic approach favored by most ballplayers: Do what works, avoid what doesn’t work. He is an authentic plain speaker, impassioned by the mission his God gave him to help and teach.

He offered hard-won lessons to substance abusers and their families:

  • Overcome denial: “I drove a friend who’d ODed to the hospital, but I didn’t have a problem.”
  • Recovery isn’t a one-man job: “You cannot do it by yourself. You need help. My God helped me, lifted me out of the grave.”
  • Work your program: “Whatever it is, work it hard every day, all day.”
  • Change your life: “I relapsed after 14 months clean and sober. I’d gone back to the same people, places, and things. So I moved to Mobile, Ala., where I’ve lived for 19 years, because I didn’t know a soul there.”
  • And for family members, his advice: “Don’t lose hope. You must have hope. Pray for them as hard as you can, but don’t lose hope.”

Mr. Carbo will take his message to baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., on July 23 as part of a program to discuss his work and his book, “Saving Bernie Carbo.”

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