Tobacco use in baseball on the decline

Tobacco use in baseball on the decline

Baseball has taken a variety of steps to cleanse itself of the stain -- literal, cultural and medical -- of tobacco use, and there's plenty of empirical evidence showing that usage, while far from completely eradicated, has decreased over the past decade or so.

"A lot of things started happening and people quit," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, who went cold turkey on chewing tobacco 14 years ago at the request of his daughters. "It's definitely not as prevalent today as it once was. You don't see the big wad and guys spitting all over the place.

"It's one of those things -- awareness. I think making people aware of the dangers has really changed it."

Yet there is plenty of anecdotal evidence showing that there remain a number of players, coaches, managers and other club personnel who still sneak a smoke, a dip, a wad or a plug.

And in what some see as another sign of progress, they are indeed sneaking.

The suggestion, it appears, is that those who can't quite kick the habit have reached an unspoken compromise in the name of protecting future generations.

Conceding that tobacco use is "down but not out," as one of several players told, practitioners of our national pastime who continue to partake are hoping that an old adage proves helpful: Out of sight, out of mind.

"I'd love to stand up in front of a bunch of kids and tell them I don't do it," Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane said. "But I can't. I could tell them they shouldn't do it themselves, that it's terrible, that it can kill them, and I'd be telling the truth. But I'd also be a little bit of a hypocrite."

So, short of lecturing impressionable youngsters who so adore their big league heroes that they'll mimic everything from batting stances to cap-wearing quirks, Beane does the only truly helpful thing he can think of when it comes to his smokeless habit.

He hides it the best he can.

To wit: When Beane was cornered by a pack of print reporters in the home clubhouse at McAfee Coliseum in Oakland earler this season, he acquiesced to the impromptu press conference -- until a television reporter, cameraman in tow, joined the group.

"Hold on. Don't turn that camera on," said Beane, who at the time was milking a sizeable -- and quite visible -- dip between his upper lip and gums. "Let me finish up with these guys; I'll give you what you need when we're done."

Minutes later, when the print media peeled off, Beane peeled the dip from his lips, rinsed his mouth out with a little water, spat into a nearby garbage can and said to the TV people, "OK, thanks. Now, what do you need?"

Asked about the exchange a couple of days later, Beane sheepishly shook his head.

"The last thing I think anyone associated with the game wants is for little Timmy at home to see any of us doing something we all know is bad and thinking, 'If they can do it, I can do it,'" Beane said. "So if you can keep it out of the public eye, you do it. It's not the best solution, obviously, but short of the ideal, that's probably the way a lot of guys are going these days."

Pricey, graphic deterrents
Beane is far from alone. Many of the tobacco-using players, coaches and managers contacted spoke of a degree of self-disdain, just as many of them said they do everything they can to keep their use on the down-low.

"Basically, you just don't make it obvious," said Brewers reliever Mark DiFelice, currently with Triple-A Nashville. "We don't dip in front of a five-year-old kid."

"I think certain guys try to watch the cameras and keep it away from kids, which is great," added Indians bench coach Jeff Datz.

Some players feel so guilty about potentially influencing a youngster to try tobacco that they wouldn't allow their identities to be revealed.

"It is something young kids should not get started on. I do it, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone," said one player. "I don't know why I do it, other than the fact I enjoy it. I don't think it is something I would pass on to anyone and say it is worth doing."

And while everyone acknowledged that tobacco use remains fairly prevalent, they agreed that baseball's steps to thwart it have had an impact. Among those steps is the all-encompassing ban on tobacco products at the Minor League level that has been in place since 1993 -- fines that started at $100 at the lower levels are up to $1,000.

"They have the 'dip police,' and nobody wants to be paying that fine in the Minor Leagues when you're not making that much money," said Royals first baseman Mark Teahen, a non-user. "Guys come in and check to see if you've got dip or chew in your locker or anything like that. If they find it, they fine the player a certain amount [and] the manager a certain amount.

"More often than that, the manager says, 'If you get caught with it, you're paying my fine, too.'"

"You just didn't do it [in the Minors]," rookie Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. "Or if they did, they hid it."

For big leaguers, there's no hiding from the many horror stories about the inherent health hazards associated with tobacco use. Virtually every player who has been to Spring Training with a Major League club has seen, during anti-tobacco education presentations in the clubhouse, the disturbing images of the late Bill Tuttle.

An outfielder for the Tigers, Royals and Twins in the 1950s and '60s, Tuttle lost most of his jaw to oral cancer, and before his death in 1998, traveled extensively to speak about the dangers of chewing tobacco on behalf of the National Spit Tobacco Education Program (NSTEP) of Oral Health America.

"You look at [what happened to Tuttle], and that's the last thing you want to have happen," Cubs reliever Bob Howry said. "There are options. You just make the choice."

Alas, Howry chooses to chew. Like many players, he said he only does it during baseball season.

"I've been trying to quit for the past four or five years," said Phillies reliever Clay Condrey. "In the offseason, I can get down to one dip a day, then go a couple of days without one. Then the game starts back up and I'm right back into the same mode."

Cheap tricks and no-cigs digs
"Dip" is the fine-grain tobacco that comes in the cans you see outlined in the back pocket of some players. "Chew" is the shredded, twisted or bricked tobacco that comes in pouches. Prior to 1998, tobacco company reps were allowed to leave free "logs" of dip cans for players or boxes of chew pouches in big league clubhouses. That practice, as well as clubs providing any tobacco for its players, is now banned as well.

Given the enormous salaries of Major League players, you might think these bans haven't had much of an impact. You'd be wrong.

"Oh, God, yes. Yes it has," said an American League equipment manager, laughing at the idea. "You wouldn't believe how cheap some of these guys are. Believe me, it has cut down the amount of dipping and chewing around here. ... Baseball did a smart thing there, because not only are some of these guys cheap, but they're also pretty spoiled and lazy.

"We are pleased that our Minor League tobacco policy is having an impact on current use in the Major Leagues. By preventing use throughout the Minor Leagues, our hope was that players would not get into the habit of using during games."
-- Pat Courtney,
MLB VP of public relations

"[Immediately after the clubhouse ban], I started running out of gum and sunflower seeds a lot quicker than I usually did. Guys just didn't want to spend their own money on the stuff. And the ones that did, they got all [upset] when I had to tell them the clubbies couldn't take their money and go get it for them. A ban is a ban, man."

Dip and chew aren't the only tobacco products traditionally abused in baseball. Cigarettes were once such an accepted part of the game that tobacco companies advertised in every ballpark and printed their own licensed baseball cards.

Cigarettes aren't commonplace as they were when pitcher Don Stanhouse was nicknamed "Full Pack" by Orioles skipper Earl Weaver -- Weaver said he needed a full pack of smokes to handle the stress Stanhouse's outings created -- but they're still around.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland is the most visible example. Hide, schmide. He makes little effort to shield his habit from the eyes of babes, and he certainly doesn't let any stadium smoking bans stop him from firing up a few "heaters" -- that's what players call them -- in visiting managers' offices on the road.

Many of his smoking brethren do hide their habit, though -- and not just to keep from sending an unhealthy message to children. One 50-something big league manager who puffs away at least a pack a day manages to do it without his own wife knowing she's married to a Marlboro Man.

"If she knew I still smoked, she'd kill me," said the skipper, who threatened a little bodily harm himself after seeing that a local newspaper reporter had outed him in a story several years back.

Few current players smoke cigarettes -- "Except when they're at a bar or something," one player said -- but Marlins lefty Scott Olsen, 24, is one of them.

"Nobody asks me for cigarettes, and I don't ask people for dip," Olsen said. "I would say about 10 in here do [use smokeless tobacco]. I think I'm the only one that actually smokes, as far as I know. I know a lot more used to smoke then they do now."

Rangers reliever Eddie Guardado can vouch for Olsen on that count.

"When I first got up to the big leagues [with the Twins], it was shocking," Guardado said. "There would be Kent Hrbek, sitting at his locker smoking a cigarette. ... You'd look across at the other dugout and there would be Mickey Tettleton up the tunnel with a cigarette in his mouth, getting ready to hit. You don't see that any more. I don't know if guys still smoke cigarettes, but if they do it, it's pretty quiet. You don't see it any more."

Defiance, gradual decline
The Minor League ban was met with resistance from some players who felt their rights were being violated.

"It's not like [the players] are doing anything illegal," Longoria said. "Anybody can walk into a store and buy a can of dip. I guess I can see where they're coming from because we're such role models to kids; they don't want to see guys on TV with big ol' dips in their mouths.

"But I can't say anything against [tobacco use] because I do it."

Mariners bullpen coach Norm Charlton was particularly defiant when discussing his tobacco usage.

"I have been doing it since I was 13 years old," he said. "Is it bad for you? Yeah, probably. Are the studies they tell you about overblown and not the truth? Yeah, probably. Should I quit? Yeah, probably. Am I going to quit? No. It's nicotine, which is a stimulant -- and a legal one, at that. ... But once you get to be 18 years old, you can make any decision you want. If it's OK to get your butt shot off in a war, then you should be able to dip if you want.

"But little kids should not be doing it."

If the results of a 10-year study on the Pirates' smokeless tobacco usage is any indication, there's hope that the kids of today won't be doing it when they become the big leaguers of tomorrow. Published by the American College of Sports Medicine in 2006, the study -- 2,266 mouth examinations were performed at Spring Training from 1991-2000 -- showed a decrease in usage from 41 percent in year one of the study to 25 percent in year 10.

"I think it's greatly diminished over the years, from the time [the ban] was implemented in the Minor Leagues," said Royals manager Trey Hillman. "I think it's definitely the route to go as far as the perception to the younger generation."

"It's less than it was in the past," Datz said. "Whether that's because of the Minor League ruling, I don't know. Hopefully we can say, 'Yes, it has helped.' But it seems to me there is less chewing than in the past. There's still enough that do it -- myself included, unfortunately. But I think it is on the decline. It's been a gradual trend that's been more prominent in the last few years."

Said MLB vice president of public relations Pat Courtney: "We are pleased that our Minor League tobacco policy is having an impact on current use in the Major Leagues. By preventing use throughout the Minor Leagues, our hope was that players would not get into the habit of using during games."

Marlins veteran outfielder Luis Gonzalez is doing his part to keep the trend moving in the right direction, having filmed a public-service announcement denouncing tobacco use. He said he's been influenced by Diamondbacks broadcaster Joe Garagiola Sr., who is heavily involved with NSTEP.

"I think [usage] may be less," Gonzalez said. "When I played in Arizona, Joe ... was a strong advocate against tobacco use and stuff, so I was always a big supporter of that. [I come] from a family where my dad smoked a lot, and he had cancer. My grandfather smoked a lot and died from cancer."

Unlike one current player who still dips despite having lost three family members to various forms of cancer over the past five years, explaining his habit by saying only, "I guess I'm stupid," Dodgers righty Joe Beimel also heeded his family history.

"I had an uncle who dipped, and he died from cancer of the throat," Beimel said. "It's disgusting, it tastes gross and smells bad. I tried it once and I couldn't understand why people do it."

Echoed Mariners reliever R.A. Dickey: "I think it's disgusting, and I haven't done it since I tried it one time during my freshman year in high school. Someone offered me [some chewing tobacco], I tried it and threw up. Ever since then ... I've never had the urge to try it again."

Gonzalez tried chewing once in college and also had a bad experience.

"I'm a big bubble-gum guy," he said.

The AL equipment manager said most of his guys are big bubble-gum guys, too, especially the younger ones. The message, he said, is being heard.

"There are still players who do it, mostly older guys, but that they're hiding it is actually a good sign," he offered. "At least they know it's wrong."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for Several staff reporters contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.