When pitcher John Candelaria returns from a 28-day stay in a rehabilitation program, he will find an unlikely and influential ally who identifies with his recent struggle: Jackie Autry, wife of Angel owner Gene Autry and a recovering alcoholic.
On June 2, Autry, 44, completed an addict-alcoholic program at the Betty Ford Center at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, not far from the Angels' spring training site in Palm Springs. Ford, whose celebrated recovery from prescription drug abuse led to the Center's focus, served as Autry's temporary sponsor.
"Nobody knew I had a problem," Autry said last week at Anaheim Stadium. "I'm the one who felt I had a problem. I think an alcoholic comes to a point in their life and says they can't deal with a situation any longer and they feel they need to take care of it. There are a lot of people that I know who are alcoholics who deny that they are alcoholics. Denial is the first problem with an alcoholic. Once you admit that you're an alcoholic, the rest seems to come a little easier."
Asked about her husband's reaction to her bout with alcoholism, Autry paused for a moment. She spoke of his supportiveness but added, "He's still in denial about my alcoholism."
Autry, one of 80 patients who participated in the recent sessions, remained at the Center for nearly a month. She left, she said, with a better understanding of herself and of her alcoholism.
"It's a hereditary, chronic, progressive disease," she said. "It's not unlike sugar diabetes. . . . It can be dealt with. A diabetic has to take the insulin shot once a day; the alcoholic has to go to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). That's their insulin shot."
When possible, Autry attends local AA meetings "as often as I can and sometimes not often enough." The first 90 days after the rehabilitation program's end, Autry said, are the most trying. Depending on the individual, three AA meetings a day might be necessary. By her own count, Autry visits the meetings about three or four times a week.
Autry said she isn't sure of the origin of her alcoholism. It could have been hereditary, but there is no known evidence of a family problem. And possibly, though not likely, she said, the growing demands and responsibilities with the Angels were partly to blame. By her own admission, Autry was "overly perfectionistic," a common trait, she said, of alcoholics.
"An alcoholic can give you 5,000 reasons to why they're an alcoholic, why they want to drink," she said. "I can't tell you if stress complicated the problem, but I'm sure it probably did, trying to do too many things at once."
It is because of her recent experiences that Autry has taken a special interest in Candelaria's troubles. While Autry said she never dictated Angel policy concerning Candelaria, she certainly may have influenced it. When General Manager Mike Port contemplated appropriate action after it was learned that Candelaria no longer regularly attended counseling sessions, Autry offered a valuable insight.
She first explained to Port the problems Candelaria faced, if indeed, he were an alcoholic. She then told Port that if the condition were diagnosed as alcoholism, "that John could not . . . deal with the pressures of what he was going through on an out-patient basis and go to AA, that he was going to have to do it as professionally as possible."
Not long after the conversation, the Angels placed Candelaria on the 15-day disabled list June 19 "for personal reasons." It was the second time Candelaria had been put on the list. Soon afterward, Candelaria entered a 28-day rehabilitation program.
"I am a recovering alcoholic and I am a graduate of the Betty Ford Center," she said. "So when you ask me the question of John's problem, I can relate to him very well. I fully intend to talk to John once he's out, and if I can be of any help, I will.
"I am very sensitive to the problem. I still think John has a great deal to offer to baseball. If he uses his tools that he's given, he'll be fine."
Meanwhile, the Angels are one of a few major league baseball teams that prohibit alcohol on team charter flights or in the clubhouse. The policy, Autry said, was unrelated to Candelaria's troubles and certainly had nothing to do with her own alcoholism. Instead, it was a legal issue, a question of whether an employer must share in the responsibility of an employee's actions if the employer provides alcohol.
"John just happened to have some problems that were alcohol-related at the time and it was just an unfortunate situation," she said. "But it was not to pick on any specific ballplayer."