There has been increasing sentiment around baseball that something should be done about the use of smokeless tobacco by ballplayers.
At one point Bud Selig claimed he’d propose a ban on it across all of baseball. While that hasn’t happened, the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement did outlaw conspicuous smokeless tobacco use and smokeless tobacco use has been banned in the minors. Tony Gwynn’s death last year — which may or may not have been attributable to his use of smokeless tobacco — inspired many players to quit. Curt Schilling’s bout with cancer last year likewise shed renewed light on the subject.
But while the anti-smokeless tobacco sentiment has grown, there does not appear to be much momentum behind a total ban in the game. The union, while hoping to discourage tobacco use, opposes an outright ban. Rob Manfred has talked about almost every conceivable topic under the sun since taking over the commissioner’s job, but smokeless tobacco use is not one of them. At this point, not much seems poised to change from Major League Baseball’s perspective.
A huge wad of chewing tobacco stuffed into a player’s cheek has long been an unofficial symbol of baseball, but a proposed city measure would ban its use at every playing field in San Francisco, including AT&T Park.
The first-in-the-nation measure will be introduced at next week’s Board of Supervisors meeting by Supervisor Mark Farrell, who said it was aimed specifically at baseball. A similar statewide measure was slated to be introduced in Sacramento on Wednesday by Richmond Assemblyman Tony Thurmond.
The bills — if passed — would cover every baseball game “played in connection with an established league or other association of persons,” which includes everything from tee-ball on up to games played in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Diego.
Major League Baseball is supportive of this, stating in response that “We ardently believe that children should not use or be exposed to smokeless tobacco and we support the spirit of this initiative in California and any others that would help achieve this important goal.” One suspects that, while baseball typically dislikes any governmental regulation of its activities, it would actually be a relief to the Lords of the Realm to have this issue taken out of its own hands and handled by governments. At least that way it wouldn’t have to engage the union over it.
While, if I could wave a magic wand, I’d make tobacco disappear in a second, I’ve gone back and forth on the best way to deal with it in baseball. I’ve, at times, preferred an all-out ban, based on the notion that, unlike so many things which are cited as dangerous examples being set for our nation’s youth, young baseball players do genuinely emulate big leaguers when it comes to smokeless tobacco use. On other occasions, I’ve been mindful of just how difficult the politics of a ban would be given league-union dynamics. Those things make me worry that a war over a legal activity engaged in by adults who are aware of the risks would not be the best priority for Major League Baseball when it comes to policing player behavior.
But a governmental ban is another debate altogether. Yes, there are some easy jokes — and some valid criticisms — to be made about government telling people what they can and cannot do when it comes to their personal habits and their consumption of otherwise legal products (New York’s soda ban, anyone?). There is also the undeniable fact that way fewer people use tobacco today than they did just a couple of decades ago and bans on the use of tobacco in public places have a lot to do with that. Make something difficult enough to do and people — some people anyway — won’t think it’s worth the trouble.
At this point, one has to assume that the next step will be for Big Tobacco to wade into this thing, lobbying folks in an effort to defeat these proposals. Pundits will weigh-in, pro and con, using this as a proxy battle for the larger political and cultural wars which never seem to end. The fact that this is taking place in San Francisco makes this all the easier given the bundle of assumptions and stereotypes the warriors in those battles have about the place. Finally, if these laws are passed, look for lawsuits to be filed because there’s always someone out there who will file a lawsuit when it’d be handy to have one.
As that all plays out, let’s all work privately to help and encourage people in our lives who use tobacco to quit doing so and let us all do whatever we can to prevent kids from ever starting to.