Given a chance at redemption by the 1989 Cardinals after a bout with substance abuse, Leon Durham botched the opportunity and got suspended from the major leagues for failing a drug test. At 32, his big-league career had reached rock bottom.
Twenty-seven years later, after an odyssey in the minors as a player and coach, Durham’s exile from the big leagues ended on Oct. 21, 2016, when the Tigers named Durham their assistant hitting coach for the 2017 season.
The promotion returned Durham to the major leagues for the first time since he played for the Cardinals in September 1989.
Durham, a Cardinals reserve first baseman, was suspended 60 days on Sept. 22, 1989, for failing to comply with major league baseball’s drug-testing program. When the suspension ended, no big-league club was willing to give him another chance.
Determined to remain in the game, Durham went to the far reaches of the minor leagues.
From 1990-95, Durham played for five minor-league clubs, including St. Paul in the independent Northern League (where his teammate for one game was 67-year-old Minnie Minoso) and two teams in the Mexican League.
After that, Durham was a minor-league coach for 21 consecutive years (1996-2016), including the last 16 (2001-2016) with the Toledo Mud Hens, Class AAA affiliate of the Tigers.
Durham’s professional career began promisingly. He was selected by the Cardinals in the first round of the 1976 amateur draft. He debuted with them in 1980, batting .271 with 15 doubles and 42 RBI in 96 games, primarily as an outfielder.
Whitey Herzog, who had the dual roles of field manager and general manager of the Cardinals, envisioned Durham as a key player.
“I wanted to trade (first baseman) Keith Hernandez and keep (Durham),” Herzog said to Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Wrote sports editor Kevin Horrigan: “Herzog tried to trade Keith Hernandez to the Chicago Cubs to get relief ace Bruce Sutter. The Cubs demanded Durham and Herzog reluctantly made the deal.”
In December 1980, the Cardinals traded Durham, third baseman Ken Reitz and utility player Ty Waller to the Cubs for Sutter.
Sutter helped the Cardinals win the 1982 World Series championship and went on to earn election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Durham became the Cubs’ everyday first baseman. He hit 20 or more home runs for them five times and twice had 90 or more RBI in a season.
By 1988, though, rookie Mark Grace had emerged as the Cubs’ choice to play first base, making Durham expendable. The Cubs dealt Durham to the Reds for pitcher Pat Perry in May 1988.
Durham, a Cincinnati native, was a bust with the Reds. He batted .216 in 21 games, entered a drug rehabilitation center in July and didn’t play the rest of the season. The Reds released him in November.
The Cardinals, seeking protection in case first baseman Pedro Guerrero got injured, offered Durham a minor-league contract in February 1989. “St. Louis just came out of nowhere,” said Durham. “It was great when St. Louis spoke up.”
Asked about his drug problems, Durham said, “A lot of people think it was worse than it was. It’s back on track now. That stuff is behind me.”
Durham opened the 1989 season with the Cardinals’ Class AAA Louisville club. He played well. He also was tested four times for drugs and was cleared each time.
In late May 1989, Ted Simmons, Cardinals director of player development, told Vahe Gregorian of the Post-Dispatch that Durham was “clean as a whip.”
Louisville manager Mike Jorgensen said Durham was “like another coach.”
Said Simmons of Durham: “He’s as good a guy to have on that club as there is. He’s a leader over there and it’s a tribute to the way he’s conducted himself, given his past. If someone were to say to me, ‘Would you take a chance on Durham at this point,’ I would say there’s no chance to take. He’s clean, he’s a credit and he’s an asset.”
On June 23, 1989, Durham was called up to the Cardinals. He declared himself drug-free and determined to make the most of his return to the big leagues.
“I’m clean. I’m healthy. I’m wise,” Durham said. “I’m strong … I’ve got peace of mind.”
Herzog said Durham told him, “Test me every day if you want to.”
Said Herzog: “I never thought Durham would get messed up on drugs. That was a big surprise.”
Durham told Hummel, “I made a mistake. I learned.”
Limited primarily to pinch-hitting and hampered by a rib-cage injury and a right ankle sprain, Durham rarely played for the Cardinals.
His lone highlight was a sacrifice fly in the ninth inning, giving the Cardinals a 4-3 walkoff victory over the Astros on Sept. 3. “I’m happy I could finally contribute to this ballclub instead of being a joke in the locker room,” Durham said. Boxscore
With a week left in the season, Durham had a .056 batting average (1-for-18) for the 1989 Cardinals, with one RBI.
Then came the announcement that he was being suspended for 60 days for failure to comply with baseball’s drug policy.
Durham apparently failed a drug test administered during a September series in Chicago, according to the Post-Dispatch.
“I feel really sorry for him,” said Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill. “He was in our plans for next year.”
Said Durham: “I’ve been clean for 15 months. I’m disappointed in this happening. I’ve worked hard to get back and they (the Cardinals) had plans for me.”
Previously: Deal for Bruce Sutter revived Cardinals