On March 28, 15 directors of public health from across the nation--including David Fleming, the public health chief of Seattle and King County--penned letters to Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig and Michael Weiner, the director of the MLB Players Association, asking them to ban chewing tobacco from the big leagues. Supporters of such a policy say sluggers with stuffed lower lips are influencing children to try tobacco, and contributing to the perception that the smokeless stuff is less risky than cigarettes. The hearts (and mouths) of the anti-chew movement may be in the right place, but here are five reasons why banning chewing tobacco from baseball is a bad idea.
It's hard to argue with that logic. All the pros are older than 18, and can legally purchase and use tobacco in the United States. Obviously the athletes can't smoke while they're on the diamond--it would be hard to chase down a fly ball while stubbing out a butt--but dipping is discreet. (Well, unless it's Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who looks like a squirrel because of the massive wad of Red Man he keeps tucked in his cheek.) Let them decide whether they want to chew or not.
2. Where Are the Parents? The strongest argument in favor of outlawing chewing tobacco is the claim that kids are more likely to try the stuff when they see "their heroes" on the diamond indulging. About five percent of high-school students reported trying chewing tobacco sometime in the past month, according to stats cited by the Times. That's still a very low number--in comparison, about 20 percent reported smoking pot during that same period--and it's important to note that the study didn't inquire as to why they tried chewing, or if they plan on doing it again.
Most kids, this author included, only try chewing once. They get sick and vomit (remember the roller-coaster scene from The Sandlot?), or their girlfriends tell them they'll never get a kiss again so long as they keep that brown filth in their mouth. That's usually the end of that. Yes, teenagers are impressionable, and some of them might be inspired to take a dip just because they saw Tim Lincecum do it on TV. But that's not the pitcher's fault. It is a parent's responsibility to teach their kids about the multitude of health risks associated with smokeless tobacco.
3. Keep Your Rules off Their Bodies. The president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said in his letter to Selig that "Major League Baseball players should do this [quit chewing tobacco] for their own health." Approximately one-third of big-league players chew tobacco. These are professional athletes who make millions of dollars off their bodies. If a guy wants to put a pinch of Skoal in his mouth while he plays, that should be his business.
4. At Least It's Not Steroids. It wasn't that long ago that Major League Baseball had a Major League image problem. Ballplayers who looked like bobbleheads were jacking home runs like they were playing on Little League fields. Fans were excited until they realized the power was artificial. Baseball has since cracked down on steroids, as well as amphetamines and other performance-enhancing drugs. That was a serious problem that was affecting the integrity of the game. Rules were needed to keep things fair for players who were smart and honest enough not to stick needles in their butts in pursuit of a better slugging percentage.
Tobacco gives guys a buzz, but it's not giving anyone a competitive advantage. If anything, the campaign to snuff out snus use is a just good way to deflect attention from the lingering steroid scandals (see: Bonds, Barry) and make MLB seem as though it's continuing to clean up its act.
5. Tradition! There's a reason so many baseball players chew tobacco: It's been a part of the game since the very beginning. A couple of years ago Slate did some research and found that when baseball was invented in the 1840s, chewing was the tobacco-ingestion method of choice for American men. In fact, they reported that by 1890 "the average American gnawed through 3 pounds of tobacco."
Over the years there have been some iconic dippers, including Francona and the Phillies' Lenny Dykstra. The great Babe Ruth smoked cigars off the field and chewed while he was on it, a combo that likely contributed to his death from throat cancer in 1948. Among Mariners, the favorites include Larry Milbourne, whose 1980 baseball card looks like a Beech-Nut ad because of the bulge in his cheek. The list goes on and on. The bottom line is that baseball is a game of great tradition and, like it or not, chewing tobacco is part of that.