Kovacevic: Coonelly DUI 'teaching moment'

| Friday, Feb. 24, 2012

Frank Coonelly is a good man who did a bad thing. A stupid, selfish, inexplicable, indefensible thing.

Driving a vehicle while impaired is akin to waving a loaded weapon in public. More than 10,000 people are killed in the United States each year because of DUI-related incidents. More than 345,000 are injured. Families are destroyed. Children are lost.

They have a fittingly grisly term for that: Vehicular homicide.

Coonelly, the Pirates' president, is fortunate he didn't add to that total on the night of Dec. 22, when he was pulled over by Ross police near the Parkway North with a blood-alcohol level of .16, twice the legal limit. He briefly turned the wrong way up a ramp before realizing it and making a U-turn.

Luckily, he had no passengers, and no other car was around. No damage was done.

This time.

But the news that broke Thursday can't — and shouldn't — just fade away. The Pirates, Coonelly and owner Bob Nutting, the one man to whom Coonelly answers, owe the public more than the written statements each issued Thursday.

They owe highly visible action toward the cause of reducing drunken driving.

"In the best of all worlds, something like this, where it's a high-profile individual, can be a teaching moment, you know?" Jan Baily, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving's Pennsylvania chapter, said yesterday by phone from Harrisburg. "You can't bury it. Step up and own it. Get in front of it. One of the things that hurts our cause is that it's way too easy to give people a free pass. Do we do that just because they're the Pirates, because they might have ways to avoid consequences• If we do, it's an insult to the victims' families."

I'll say it again: Coonelly is a good man, a husband and father of four. And he's anything but a problem drinker, from all I've heard and seen in covering his tenure that began in 2007. We're talking about someone who typically arrives at PNC Park at 6 a.m. and engages in a heavy workout before heading to his office for a 12-hour day. We're talking about someone with no known history of any alcohol-related incidents.

But that doesn't excuse it.

Coonelly was attending a holiday party when he had a few too many and lost track. That happens. But he should have handed his keys to a friend and asked for a ride, and he didn't. He should have called a cab, and he didn't. Instead, he was loaded when he got behind the wheel of that loaded weapon.

In his statement, Coonelly called it "a serious lapse in judgment."

Be sure that he's found other, less lawyer-like words for it when looking in the mirror.

First thing next morning, Coonelly phoned Nutting and told all. He did likewise with others in the front office. But that was it. Neither he nor Nutting addressed it publicly until Thursday.

That bugs me.

I can understand it, to an extent. No one would want to embarrass their employer and family if it's avoidable. But Coonelly already attended one hearing earlier this month, and he's set to have another March 20. Someone was going to notice, and word was going to get out.

Why not just, to borrow Baily's terminology, "get in front of it?"

Think more people would feel a lot more forgiving toward Coonelly right now?

No punishment for Coonelly is forthcoming from Major League Baseball, and it doesn't sound like any will come from Nutting, either. Which won't raise an objection here. That's why the legal system is there. Again, Coonelly is a first-time offender.

The best outcome, actually, would be for Coonelly and the Pirates to squeeze some good out of this: Make a real difference by openly working with MADD, by helping to make the public aware — including the busiest beer guzzlers at PNC Park — of the dangers of drunk driving. The team already has an expansive designated-driver program and other educational elements in place.

Baily would love to become part of it.

"It would be a great opportunity to have our message heard," she said. "And that message is simple: If you're drinking, don't drive. We're not against alcohol. We at MADD drink, too. We just don't get behind the wheel."

Look up MADD at www.madd.org .

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