Kyle Blanks’ body hadn’t cooperated much during his MLB career, and the end was in sight in 2016 and 2017 as he tried to coax it for one last baseball run.
Running on his surgically repaired feet was a painful problem.
He was on a minor-league contract with the San Francisco Giants as he rehabbed foot injuries in Arizona. His goal was to get through a nine-inning game.
To help, he took a combination of medications issued by a team doctor and mixed them with a bottle of rum each afternoon.
That’s how he dulled the pain.
Blanks would doze off/pass out in the middle of the day and wake up after sundown sober and unable to sleep. So, he knocked himself out again with Ambien, a sedative used to treat insomnia.
He did the same thing the next day.
After learning what caused the death of Tyler Skaggs, Blanks believes he is fortunate he woke up at all.
“I didn’t do anything different than he did,” Blanks said. “I hammered pills and took a drink.”
Baseball was shocked by Skaggs’ death July 1, when he was found unresponsive in a Southlake hotel room before his Los Angeles Angels were to open a four-game series against the Texas Rangers.
The autopsy results nearly two months later showed what killed the 27-year-old left-hander: a combination of opioids and alcohol.
The news Oct. 12 that an Angels employee supplied Skaggs with opioids and that Skaggs was an addict was another shocking twist in MLB’s most difficult story of the season.
For Blanks, who spent the 2015 season with the Rangers, Skaggs’ death served as a call to action. The Oct. 12 report confirmed what he has long believed:
Baseball has a burgeoning opioid problem, despite what MLB says its testing shows.
Blanks is convinced of it because he lived the kind of lifestyle during his playing days that might have first hooked Skaggs.
Now, Blanks is trying to help.
He wants to talk to MLB, the MLB Players Association, individual clubs and players and coaches. He wants to advocate for MLB and minor-league players to have more freedom to choose how to treat their ailments rather than rely on booze and opioids.
The best answer to all that afflicted him in San Diego, Oakland, Arlington, Surprise, Round Rock, Scottsdale and everywhere else his career took him is being grown at his farm in the middle of New Mexico and at others like it throughout the country.
It’s an industrial hemp farm, and Blanks is an advocate of hemp-derived CBD as a treatment option in baseball.
“The platform enables me to speak about it because I’m not one of the tragedies,” he said. “I happened to come from this place and something bad happened. I feel it’s necessary for me to come forward and try to help people.”
CBD as an alternative
Blanks said one of the reasons he went into the hemp business is he believes cannabidiol, more commonly known as CBD, can help players as much as it helps people from all walks of life.
His interest was piqued as a player when he occasionally smoked marijuana to manage pain, beginning in 2012.
Players on an MLB team’s 40-man roster are not tested for drugs of abuse, including all forms of natural cannabinoids, without reasonable cause. Blanks openly admits to smoking marijuana when he was on a 40-man roster and cutting it as a treatment option when he wasn’t on a 40-man roster because he would be subject to testing.
Yes, he smoked weed when with the Rangers, and even had an open-door policy after a game if other players wanted help to relax, fall asleep or take away some pain.
Blanks said he was never addicted to opioids but took enough of them during his career to realize he does not care for the way they make him feel.
There were times as a player, though, when he felt the only choice he had was to use prescribed opioids or anti-inflammatory painkillers and combine them with alcohol to take enough pain away for him to play.
Blanks recently started a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” to help spread his story on social media.
“I’m a very good sounding board for wellness because of what I’ve been through. It’s just a very good conversation,” he said.
Blanks is proposing hemp-based CBD be permitted simply as a treatment alternative to painkillers and potentially addictive opioids.
Hemp-based CBD is non-addictive and is legal in all 50 states thanks to the Farm Bill of 2018, though products can’t be marketed as medication or as a dietary supplement.
There are a variety of ways to use CBD, which is derived from the hemp plant and does not have a psychoactive effect like marijuana. Hemp-based CBD must have a tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) level no higher than 0.3% to be considered legal.
THC is the component in marijuana that produces a high.
CBD is readily available in oils, capsules, edibles, beverages, lotions, salves and tinctures. It can be purchased online from farms like Blanks’ with a continuous hemp-production license, or at the local video store or gas station.
Blanks is certain that allowing CBD in the major leagues would make a difference. Perhaps a life-saving one.
“It’s a win-win for everyone,” Blanks said.
Career in pain
Blanks knows all too well about dealing with injuries.
A power-hitting first baseman and corner outfielder, Blanks was injured often throughout his seven MLB seasons and his final two seasons in pro ball as he tried to get his body healthy enough to play again.
He underwent Tommy John surgery, had an operation to repair a shoulder and work on both Achilles tendons. He was on the injured list seven times in his career.
He used when on his team’s 40-man roster, though he said he never played high. He was on the Rangers’ 40-man roster in 2015 and found himself in excruciating pain before a series at Yankee Stadium.
Blanks smoked marijuana to dull the pain caused by a pilonidal cyst in his lower back. He was hurting enough to make an overnight trip to a New York-area hospital and underwent surgery to remove the cyst.
“When we first opened it and pulled back the covering, you could have lost a golf ball in it,” Blanks said.
He also dealt with a chronic condition in his feet with the Rangers and eventually needed surgery that shaved away bone near his Achilles’ tendons.
Blanks was not on the Giants’ 40-man roster in 2016 and 2017 when he dealt with more issues in his feet. Cannabis and natural cannabinoids are also drugs of abuse in the minors, so he couldn’t use them without risking a positive drug test.
Therein lies his issue: He couldn’t seek his preferred treatment, which was banned in the minor leagues unless on a 40-man roster, but his brand of self-medicating with pills and alcohol was harmful to his health.
“It’s very clear, there’s zero alternative to what’s available unless you’re willing to roll the dice on your career,” Blanks said. “I stopped smoking when I would be taken off the roster. I did everything right.”
A number of investigations were launched in the death of Skaggs after an autopsy found he had fentanyl and oxycodone in his system, but the one led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was cited in an ESPN report on Oct. 12.
In it, sources said that the Angels’ director of communications, Eric Kay, admitted to supplying Skaggs and five other players with illegal opioids. Kay, who is suspended by the Angels and undergoing rehab for his addiction to opioids, has since confirmed he is cooperating with the DEA.
Skaggs’ death has made opioid testing a priority for next season, and an industry source said the goal is to present players with a plan to approve by their annual meetings in early December.
MLB and the MLBPA do not believe baseball has an opioids problem. Test results over the past five years in MLB and the minors back their belief.
A source said that MLB has conducted more than 77,000 drug tests and has had only 12 positive tests for opioids. The tests are random but frequent enough that opioids are likely still in a player’s body if he’s abusing them.
MLB also continues to ban opioids from clubhouses, a policy that started 10 years ago. A team doctor or dentist must prescribe opioids, said Jamie Reed, senior director of medical operations for the Rangers, and the prescriptions are usually for only a handful of pills and are not refilled.
These days, the only time a player is prescribed opioids is after surgery.
Reed has never encountered a player who has become addicted to opioids after using them.
“It’s an easy addiction for the brain, and everyone is really, really careful giving it out,” Reed said. “If a doctor feels it’s needed, they’ll write a prescription for just a small dosage. It has to go through a pharmacy.”
Because CBD products are widely available, Blanks said he has little to gain financially from MLB allowing the use of it.
If anything, Blanks said he has more to lose than gain. He is telling the world that he smoked marijuana while playing at baseball’s highest level and that he has dedicated his post-baseball life to cannabis.
The guy must be a stoner. A 6-foot-5 tatted-up pothead, right?
“If I see somebody who looks like me, I’m concerned about my safety,” Blanks said.
He has been in touch with MLB and the MLBPA, and hopes the latest Skaggs news will make those he’s speaking with more receptive.
He wants the chance to stand before a group of baseball officials, doctors and trainers to tell them his story and how hemp-based CBD can help ballplayers and reduce the risk of opioid addiciton or hazardous complications from mixing painkillers with alcohol.
“I have always understood that what this provides people requires education,” Blanks said. “If you can educate enough people on how they’ve been misinformed or wrong and make it click, this is a stage that can make an impact and make a change.”
Five current MLB players were asked for this story if they would consider using hemp-derived CBD. One said he and a few others he knows use pure CBD, which has no THC, and all five said they would try hemp-derived CBD if it was shown to help with recovery.
Athletes in others sports also advocate for CBD. Former Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson hopes to open a hemp farm in Michigan, and he and his partners have teamed with Harvard University to study the effects of medical marijuana on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that plagues many retired football players.
Like Blanks, Johnson used marijuana during his career.
Based on conversations he has had with coaches and players, Blanks is certain there would be a level of curiosity.
“If it helps me recover, absolutely,” said San Diego Padres second baseman Ian Kinsler, a former Rangers player. “That’s all athletes are looking for, especially baseball players. Our schedule is brutal.”
The good news for Blanks’ cause is that MLB expects to discuss cannabinoids this off-season with the players association as they review their Joint Drug Agreement, and both sides say they are open to exploring the use of hemp-derived CBD.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), one of the standard-bearers for sports competition, has exempted CBD.
“What I do is federally legal in every state,” Blanks said. “So, you’re telling guys they can’t do anything?”
MLB said it is being open-minded as it looks into CBD.
“The Commissioner’s Office is open to reexamining the classification of treatment of CBD and other cannabinoids under our Program and has proposed changes in this area,” MLB said in a statement for this story.
“We have consulted with a number of experts on these subjects, and solicited input from medical doctors, treatment providers, regulatory agencies and government officials. Like other collectively bargained substance-use policies, it is important that we remain focused on education and treatment, and take an evidence-based approach based on science and sound principles of health and safety.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved any hemp-based CBD products. The FDA is in the process of researching the effects of CBD, but has not declared if it is safe to treat any diseases and is not sure of proper dosages.
MLB wrote to players and clubs in March that the lack of regulations for producing CBD can lead to contamination, and products claiming to be free of THC have produced “multiple positive drug tests.”
WADA allowing CBD hasn’t convinced MLB that it should follow suit. MLB sees the WADA decision as too confusing and as essentially setting up players for a failed test.
“Typically, most professional sports leagues follow WADA,” said Reed, the Rangers’ executive. “But they have not on this one. If there was any suggestion by the FDA that there is some scientific evidence that there is pain management, I’d think they would have to consider it.”
Blanks believes federally legal hemp-based CBD could help prevent another tragedy.
“Now that I’ve started, why would I stop?” he said. “I would love to be the olive branch that gets to have an impact in their sport. Other than that, I’m not looking for anything over than trying to help.”