By Dan Bernstein
CBS Chicago Senior Columnist
Good for you, San Francisco. You too, Boston.
Both of those major cities have reached the correct and only conclusion that there’s nothing good about the longstanding connection between baseball and the widespread use of smokeless tobacco products. There is no reason that the game itself should encourage or even tacitly facilitate something so inarguably hideous.
So, enough already.
San Francisco passed an ordinance this spring that goes into effect next year, banning smokeless tobacco from all public athletic fields, including the Giants’ home at AT&T Park. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh Tuesday announced a nearly identical proposal for his city, one that would include all organized sporting events of any kind and would go into effect on April 1, 2016. Violators would be ticketed and fined, with the managers of the venues responsible for compliance.
Before you respond with predictable biliousness about your freedom being taken from you by the evil gubmint trampling your rights, know this: I don’t care what you do to yourself. You are entitled to ingest whatever carcinogens you choose as long as it does not infringe upon anyone else, just as you are free to hit yourself in the head repeatedly with a polo mallet. There are no secondhand concerns, save for the disgusting spit-cups you carry around and leave behind, and the globs of poisonous goo that pollute whatever grounds you inhabit.
Go ahead and do whatever you want on your own time. This is not really about the products themselves, but the long overdue decoupling of tobacco use from baseball culture.
It’s an artifact now, carried through to this day from long ago, when the dangers weren’t known. It says something about how powerfully addictive the chemical compound is, that such an anachronism is still in use by an estimated 30 percent of MLB players. Baseball has had an easier time evolving past institutionalized racism than the stupidity of actively seeking mouth cancer.
It’s not entirely Carlton Fisk’s fault that I threw up all over the sidewalk, but I’m not letting him off the hook completely because kids are stupid and impressionable. At least I was.
“When I relax, I reach for Copenhagen – the smokeless tobacco,” Fisk said to me from the TV. “Just a pinch between my cheek and gum gives me rich tobacco flavor, without lighting up.”
A pinch between my cheek and gum gave me an accelerated heart rate, world-spinning dizziness, projectile vomiting and dry heaves, but the writers probably wouldn’t have wanted that in the commercial. That was my first and last experience with the pleasant relaxation afforded by Copenhagen.
I bought “Reggie” bars with allowance money, assumed Jockey underwear was better because Jim Palmer preferred it, and tried to like Wheaties I’m sure in part because of Ron Cey warbling “Before I swing for the bleacher seaties, I get the eaties for my Wheaties.”
If I could have shaved, you’d bet I would have taken the advice of Thurman Munson to pre-treat my beard with Lectric Shave and finish like Pete Rose with Aqua Velva. Johnny Bench convinced me Krylon spray paint was the way to go, and if I ever needed a bad toupee, there’s no question Steve Ontiveros wouldn’t steer me wrong with Hairline Creations.
I’m not saying baseball players raise our kids. That’s our job. But images matter whether we parents want them to or not, no matter how hard we try.
Cereals and candy and grooming products are harmless, for the most part. Smokeless tobacco use, however, results in markedly increased risk of oral cancers, esophageal cancer, pancreatic cancer, stomach cancer, cardiovascular disease, gum disease, and tooth loss.
Still, the estimated rate of regular use among high school baseball players remains around 15 percent, with almost half of players at least having tried it. That’s too high, and if you think it has absolutely nothing to do with what kids see on their televisions and at big-league ballparks then you have to know you’re lying to yourself.
We notice more sunflower seeds and gum all the time, but that stubborn final third remains to make tobacco use seem like a relatively normal American baseball habit. As ingrained as it is in the sport, it will take a concentrated campaign of the kind of lobbying that results in the legislation we’re starting to see, as well as a broad public relations push.
MLB and the players’ union should negotiate a ban on dipping and chewing, at least outside the privacy of the clubhouse.
Players on the field can use a patch, or chomp on as much Nicorette as they need while they comply with local law when they travel to play the Giants and Red Sox, and any other teams with city or state governments emboldened to follow these fine examples. It shouldn’t be that hard.
It’s long past time to scrub baseball free of its tobacco stain.