Joel Zumaya Says He Used Marijuana Throughout Tigers Career

"For us to wake up and deal with the pain -- I’m telling you, it hurts to throw hard."

Will Burchfield
May 24, 2019 - 12:42 pm
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Despite pitching just five seasons for the Tigers, Joel Zumaya left an indelible mark on one of the team's greatest seasons in recent memory.

He came up in 2006 as a flame-throwing rookie and helped Detroit win 95 games and win the AL pennant for the first time since 1984. Zumaya finished third in the majors in holds and was named Setup Man of the Year. 

The key ingredient for Zumaya, besides that triple-digits fastball? Medical marijuana. 

In the debut episode of 97.1 The Ticket's podcast The Time That -- a trip down memory lane during this bleak era of Detroit sports -- Zumaya said he used marijuana throughout his career. 

"Since I’m the first person on your podcast, man, I’m going to shock the world. When I played, I called it medical marijuana because I’m from California. We had it medicalized back then before anybody else had it. I used it while I played. And the reason I used it while I played is because I couldn’t sleep at night," Zumaya said. "Sometimes we would get home at 12 at night, sometimes from road trips not even until 6:00 in the morning, and have to play the same day. For us to get sleep and to wake up and deal with the pain -- I’m telling you, it hurts to throw hard. To do what we do for 160-something games and to perform at that level, you just can’t pop anti-inflammatories and Tylenol and Excedrin. It’s going to deteriorate your body, man, and that’s something that we did to ourselves.

"I’m a pitcher. I took six Advil every single day just to try to heal that bad stuff in my arm and make it feel good. To go home and feel the stuff that we feel afterwards, I would go home and I had a vaporizer and I would vaporize medical marijuana and it would put me to sleep. Sleep like a champ, wake up the next morning, go back to the field and do what I had to do."

Major League Baseball and the Players Association have long had an open stance on marijuana, dating back to the first Joint Drug Agreement in 2002. Players are only tested on the basis of reasonable cause and aren't at risk of being suspended. (This stands in stark contrast to the protocol in the minors.) So it's not a huge surprise Zumaya avoided any kind of fall-out over the course of his five-year career. 

"Back then, it was weird, man. We actually didn't get blood tested when I was in the league. We would just urinate," Zumaya said. "I think back then they were just looking for guys that did cocaine or enhancements, the guys that were just using the crazy stuff to make (themselves) better. I’m not going to lie to you, I think I got drug tested more than the average person in 2006. I guess they thought I was juicing just because I threw so damn hard. But you never saw my name pop up dirty, man, and it never will." 

Recreational marijuana was recently legalized in the state of Michigan, something that Zumaya naturally supports. He feels MLB and other professional sports leagues should openly allow their players to use Cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive chemical in cannabis that is often used to treat pain. 

"I'm very grateful that Michigan has done that. I’m from California, so I preach that. My parents all have arthritis and they use the CBD. I use the CBD cream. I think athletes should use the CBD cream for pain and joints and all that stuff. The smoking, save that for afterward because it can affect the 162 games, the way you play and run. But just let the athletes use CBD, just the way they slam Tylenol and all that stuff down our throats," Zumaya said. 

In an honest, wide-ranging interview, Zumaya also talks about the rock-star lives of the 2006 Tigers (yes, he autographed the occasional breast), the way his career quickly unraveled and how he's found happiness in the years since. He even divulges the true story behind the infamous Guitar Hero injury. 

A snippet: "We went through doctors and doctors, MRI's, X-rays, nothing was coming up. But I still couldn’t grip the ball. No one could come to a conclusion, not even the team doctor or specialists. I walk into the frickin' clubhouse, I go to the training room and I was like, 'Hey, guys, I’ve been playing this game Guitar Hero.' Kevin Rand, our trainer, and Dave Dombrowski were all there, and Kevin looked at me, looked at everybody and he goes, 'You know what? My kid’s got that game. I know how they play it, I know how the thumb strums on it. That’s exactly it.' So from that day on, Joel Zumaya was freakin’ Guitar Hero rock star, man."