Baseball and chewing tobacco seem to go hand in hand. It's not hard to conjure a mental image of a ballplayer with a big chaw in his cheek or gum, spitting in the dirt and digging in at the plate.
But really, you have to wonder why that's still the case well into the 21st century. Baseball has legislated steroids and amphetamines out of the game (to the extent possible), and Jim Leyland notwithstanding, most folks have accepted that cigarettes and athletic endeavors do not go hand in hand.
Smokeless tobacco, however, has proven tougher to get rid of. It has been banned at both the college and minor league levels, but anyone who has been on the field at one of those games will tell you that it's still being used. And there are no rules against its use at all in the major leagues.
This feels a little like the way society viewed cigarettes 20 or 30 years ago. Sure, we know it's bad for us, but we're just going to ignore that for now. Finally, after years of legislation and education, cigarette use has been dramatically reduced. The use of smokeless tobacco, however, remains persistent. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 percent of high school boys use smokeless tobacco, and their use has increased 36 percent since 2003.
This is occurring in spite of plentiful information about the danger of using it, and notable cases like that of Hall of Famer and San Diego State coach Tony Gwynn, who revealed in October that he had cancer in his parotid salivary gland. Gwynn, who is just 50, blamed it on his use of chewing tobacco. He said he continued to use it even after having non-malignant tumors removed from the same gland in 1997 and 2007. He went through radiation and chemotherapy treatments at the end of 2010 and has kicked the habit.
Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg is trying to do the same thing, after hearing about Gwynn, his college coach. "I was one of those kids who picked it up based on seeing ballplayers do it," Strasburg told The Washington Post. "It's not a good thing, and I don't want to represent myself like that."
Get It Out
That's where the Knock Tobacco Out of the Park campaign comes in. Ten medical and public health groups, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, have joined together in pushing for Major League Baseball to ban smokeless tobacco use at games. To do that will require the consent of the MLB Players Association. And with the Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring after this season, the Knock Tobacco Out of the Park organization is making its push this year.
MLB could implement a ban in the minor leagues because those players aren't members of the union. It also helped establish the National Spit Tobacco Education Program, an education effort from the non-profit organization Oral Health America. (MLB also prohibits anyone in uniform from smoking in view of spectators.)
Commissioner Bud Selig has already come out in support of a ban in response to a letter from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
"Without reservation, I and the major league clubs share your concerns regarding the dangers of tobacco use," he wrote in a letter to the organization. "I personally believe that smokeless tobacco should be banned at the major league level . . . MLB will propose restrictions on the use of smokeless tobacco at the major league level comparable to the restrictions in place at the minor league level."
Other organizations have joined the call, including a group of 25 leaders from various religious denominations called Faith United Against Tobacco. Union chief Michael Weiner responded, saying the topic will be discussed during the negotiations. He did not set out a position, but wrote, "Although I will not predict the outcome of our talks, I know that a sincere effort will be made to address use of smokeless tobacco products."
We don't need to pretend this is the most important issue facing owners and players as they hammer out a labor deal. On the other hand, there's no rational argument to continue to support this disgusting habit.
I'm all for personal freedom, but how about exercising that right for something important? When your strongest argument is, "It gives me a good buzz," it's time to move on to Red Bull or nicotine gum. And whether players like it or not, youngsters do notice them with that dip in their cheek or gum.
Baseball doesn't appear to have insurmountable issues facing it in the new labor deal. And this one should be the easiest of all.
If you'd like to participate in this effort,'¨visit tobaccofreebaseball.org.