No tobacco allowed

ORIG / 06-27-14 / Joe Kline / The Bulletin  Smokeless tobacco illustration.

By: Grant Lucas
The Bulletin

It has been a staple of baseball culture for as long as there have been peanuts and Cracker Jack.

It has been tradition and routine, so much so that it has become part of the sport’s identity. Yet it appears that chewing tobacco has overstayed its welcome in baseball. It has been evicted from nearly every league in the land — including the West Coast League — as the sport attempts to kick the habit that for years has been a health concern and that almost certainly led to the recent death of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.

Jim Richards, longtime owner and general manager of the Bend Elks, recalls an encounter with an Elks player on June 16, the day Gwynn died.

“He (the Elks player) had a wad in there,” Richards recounts. “And I looked at him and I said, ‘Did you hear that Tony Gwynn passed away?’ And he said, ‘No. What did he die from?’ I said, ‘The same stuff you’ve got in your mouth.’ He kind of looked like a deer in the headlights there for a minute.

“I never did it. My kids never did it. It’s a horrible habit,” says Richards, whose two sons both played college baseball and are both former Bend Elks. “But it’s been around baseball a long, long time.”

Perhaps too long.

Three years ago, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association made initial strides toward potentially outlawing chewing tobacco.

From those 2011 labor negotiations came an edict that players must keep tins and cans out of view at ballparks and out of the range of television cameras, and they must be discreet with tobacco use during games.

After the death of the 54-year-old Gwynn following a four-year battle with oral cancer, the MLBPA issued a statement saying that it “continues to discourage the use of smokeless tobacco products by its members or by anyone else.” The players union emphasizes that its focus is on educating players rather than trying to ban tobacco altogether.

Tobacco use among big league players has decreased from about half the league population 20 years ago to about 33 percent, according to a survey conducted recently by the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society.

But according to PBATS, 49 percent of pro baseball prospects currently use chewing tobacco.

“The thing is, it’s hard with just the coaches and kids and the baseball culture of chewing,” Bend Elks coach Marty Hunter says. “(But) I think it’s gotten better. That’s what happens, you get these cases like this (Gwynn’s death) and kids’ eyes are opened to it. It’s better if kids don’t start. It’s the same thing with smoking. Every single person is like, ‘I wish I didn’t start.’”

Before his death, Gwynn contributed to a PBATS film aimed at educating baseball players about the use of the product. In it, a voice quotes Gwynn, saying, “If you aren’t using spit tobacco, please don’t start. And if you are using, try to quit. If not for yourself, then do it for the people you love.”

Salivary gland cancer — the type of cancer that claimed Tony Gwynn — has not definitively been linked to smokeless tobacco use, but more than 40,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer every year, according to U.S. health officials, and only half of those diagnosed will be alive five years later.

“We don’t want to see it (chewing tobacco) in your locker,” Richards says of his expectations for the Elks. “We don’t want to see it in your bag. We don’t want to see it in the dugout. More importantly, we don’t want to see it in your mouth.”

Smokeless tobacco is banned in the minor leagues as well as by the NCAA, which has a clearly expressed “tobacco rule” in its rule book. And because it has adopted the NCAA regulations as its own, the WCL also prohibits chewing tobacco.

“We want it to be kind of seamless in terms of rules for the players and coaches and everyone,” says WCL president Dennis Koho. “More importantly, we’re involved in health and fitness as well as in sport, and one of the big killers in America still remains tobacco. So banning it from the field was a very important step, especially with the kind of history that tobacco has (in baseball).”

The WCL is a zero-tolerance league; any player seen during a game with a tobacco tin in his pocket, on the field or in the dugout, or with a wad of chew in his mouth, he will be ejected.

“We just don’t allow it,” Koho says. “It’s pretty clear and simple for us. And I’m glad. I’m glad it’s just black and white. There’s nothing for me to discern whether it’s close enough or good enough. It’s just not allowed.”

That is the league rule — yet it is confined to the ballpark. What players do beyond the fences of the stadium is out of WCL jurisdiction. But to help maintain professionalism and sustain club respectability, the Bend Elks attach a code of conduct to the contract of each of the team’s players. A signature on that document, Richards says, is each player’s understanding that there will be no tobacco use.

“A lot of these kids are coming to a new town for the first time, and they like to let their hair down a little bit,” Richards says. “They don’t think it’s school ball. And to a certain degree, that is correct. … Typically, summer ball is treated a little bit differently. But there are certain rules and guidelines and policies that we put down with the players at the beginning of the season. We attach the code of conduct to the league contract that they sign, and they personally hand deliver the signed code of conduct to us. It’s our way of ensuring that they’ve read it and acknowledged it and will suffer the repercussions of violating it.”

Richards concedes that players in the past may have chewed discreetly — and that current players might be doing the same — hiding the habit well enough that persons in position to do something about it (umpires, coaches, or Richards himself) do not see it. But the Elks owner believes that, with some possible rare exceptions, the Elks are tobacco-free. And that, he insists, is how the team will remain.

“The big thing is you educate kids on the rules,” Hunter says. “If a player gets caught with chew, the coach is ejected. You educate them on the negative aspects of it (as far as what the rules state and tobacco’s impact on personal health). Our kids are pretty good managing it.”

Richards does not recall any violations for tobacco use with his club. (“We’ve had top-notch respect for our policies and procedures,” he says. “We only have to tell a kid once.”) And the only tobacco-related issue in the entire WCL, at least to Koho’s knowledge, involved a group of umpires who were chewing. That was several years ago, Koho says, noting that the league has since changed to a different umpiring organization.

That obedience, Koho says, is encouraging — especially for a league as community oriented as the West Coast League.

“As a little kid, I wanted to do everything that the big guys were doing there at the baseball field,” Koho says. “If they were chewing tobacco, I was going to want to do that. It’s important that we set that example as well.”

“We are a league that knows our roles in the community,” Richards adds. “These youngsters look up to these players as if they’re professional superstars. These players very clearly understand that they’re role models. Therefore, they have to portray themselves as such. They know their role on our team. We take pride in them walking around town with that big Bend Elks T-shirt on or that ‘B-E’ logo on their hat. They understand the importance of it in the community.”

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