WASHINGTON (BP) — America’s favorite pastime has returned for another season. The Major League Baseball tradition, with peanuts and crackerjacks inseparably entwined with it, is as American as apple pie.
But when fans pass through the turnstiles of Major League ballparks or tune in to watch their favorite team this season, they may notice the diminished visibility of something that has also been part of the baseball tradition since its earliest days — smokeless chewing tobacco.
For the first time in history, Major League ball clubs this season will play ball with limits on the usage and visibility of smokeless tobacco on the field and in front of fans and cameras. As part of a five-year collective bargaining agreement reached in November between MLB and the players association, players, coaches, managers and other team personnel will no longer be permitted to stash a can or package of smokeless tobacco in their back pockets or anywhere else in their uniforms when taking to the field or anytime fans are in the ballpark. Nor will they be permitted to have a wad of smokeless chew — otherwise known as dip — tucked under their lip when signing autographs or participating in on-camera interviews or fan meet-and-greets.
The new restrictions are a positive step toward curtailing smokeless tobacco’s widespread and devastating impact on health: oral cancer, mouth lesions and gum disease, to name a few ailments caused by the products, which also have been linked to heart attacks and pancreatic cancer.
And with a 36 percent rise in the rate of smokeless tobacco use among high school boys since 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the new limits are a positive step toward reducing the damaging influence of smokeless tobacco.
“While not a complete victory, this is tremendous progress in the right direction,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), following announcement of the agreement.
The agreement, enthusiastically supported by baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, follows a concerted effort last year by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and other faith groups, along with numerous public health organizations, in calling for a complete ban on smokeless tobacco products in Major League Baseball.
“What players do on their own time is their business, but what they do when they are in uniform and on camera is all of ours, especially considering what’s at stake,” Land, along with two dozen other faith leaders, wrote in a letter last May to Michael Weiner, executive director of the Major League Baseball Player Association.
To be sure, efforts to curb smokeless chew in the Major Leagues pre-date last year’s push by groups like the ERLC. But not until now has baseball made any movement.
The faith groups’ goal — a total ban on smokeless chew in ballparks — might sound overly ambitious. But action by professional sports leagues is not unprecedented. The minor leagues enacted a ban on smokeless tobacco in 1993. A year later, the NCAA put in place a total ban for college teams during games and practices. The National Hockey League also prohibits players from chewing while in fans’ view.
For many young users, watching their baseball heroes combine the game with smokeless tobacco — chewing, spitting and reloading a wad of the cancer-causing products under their lower lips — has taken them unwittingly down the road to addiction. And many of today’s players in the prime of their professional baseball careers — nearly a third of whom are estimated to consume smokeless tobacco in some form — followed that road to addiction by emulating their baseball heroes as kids. It’s a cruel, endless cycle of bondage — but a cycle that the ERLC hopes will soon end.
Many players and managers see it that way too. Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, well known for his long career managing the New York Mets, is one of the leading voices within the league calling for a ban. “Major League players who chew tobacco on the field are, in effect, providing free advertisement for these efforts,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year.
Tony Gwynn, the Hall of Famer and former San Diego Padres slugger who now coaches baseball at San Diego State University, is one of the more prominent faces behind the dipping addiction. Like countless other players, he tried to quit multiple times without success. Now he suffers from salivary cancer, which he attributes to his decades of dipping. Recently, he underwent his fourth oral surgery, this time to remove a cancerous tumor.
The smokeless tobacco habit is one that many players like young Washington Nationals ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who played under the coaching of Gwynn, and Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, whose addiction to drugs and alcohol nearly ended his baseball career before it began, have tried with great difficulty to kick.
And, hopefully, as Major League Baseball’s first set of limitations on the “cancer in a can” takes effect this season, the habit will have less allure to impressionable young boys to take their first dip. It’s a habit worth knocking out of the park.
Doug Carlson is manager for administration and policy communications for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s Washington D.C. office.