Evaluating baseball’s stance on chewing tobacco

Smokeless tobacco jumps into the news every now and again, usually due to the odd grandstanding gesture from a politician seeking to protect the Impressionable Children of North America.

This time, however, it was Josh Hamilton who brought the issue to the table.

Plagued by a prolonged slump, Hamilton has made several offhand comments about a personal problem at the core of his struggles. In this Twitter-spastic age, his comments naturally spawned wild guessing of a most creative and speculatively slanderous nature.

A week ago the truth came out. Hamilton released a statement saying, in part, “The issue is ‘discipline.’ Professionally, it’s been plate discipline. Personally, it’s been being obedient to the Lord in quitting chewing tobacco.”

On January 31, 2011, The Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore broke the story of Stephen Strasburg’s own efforts to quit, motivated by the tobacco-caused parotid cancer afflicting Tony Gwynn, his college coach. This story was read, processed, and mostly forgotten.

You may feel however you do about the subject of smokeless tobacco, with your opinions likely colored by however you feel about tobacco in general (with the added positive of no second-hand smoke and the added negative of the unhygienic realities of chewing tobacco), but the folks in baseball are not ignorant. They understand that smokeless tobacco is 1) addictive, and 2) potentially dangerous. This does not dissuade them. 

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Despite a strong challenge from sunflower seeds, a regular chaw remains a normal part of clubhouse culture. Players chew, coaches chew, managers chew, scouts chew and sometimes even the training staff or front office brass may chew. There’s no secret to any of this. The circular tin is readily apparent in back pockets, as easy to spot as the bulge in the cheek or the bottom lip.

But let’s set aside the issue of whether or not smokeless tobacco needs to be eradicated and get to something far more important: Major League All-Stars Josh Hamilton and Stephen Strasburg can freely choose whether or not they wish to use smokeless tobacco. Minor League super-prospects Jurickson Profar and Dylan Bundy cannot.

Since 1993, Minor League Baseball, unlike MLB, has prohibited smokeless tobacco. Specifically, the Minors “prohibits all players and all personnel from using or possessing tobacco or similar products on ballpark premises or during Club Travel.” Period.

This is a conflict larger than the American League and National League disagreeing over instituting the DH. The Minor Leagues (and college baseball, too) say that its players cannot even be in possession of smokeless tobacco. The Major Leagues gives its players free reign.

Why does this discrepancy exist?

Can it be that the Minor Leagues are simply more concerned than the Major Leagues about a baseball player’s health?

Perhaps it’s the Minors’ greater proximity to children; the MiLB landscape is hugely interested in connecting to families. But then why not simply limit smokeless tobacco use from occurring on the field, rather than adding the prohibition of chewing “during Club Travel”? Surely there aren’t any children sitting on the team bus, lunchbox in lap.

Note too that the vast majority of the players in the minors are past the minimum age required to purchase cigarettes. There isn’t any potential legal trouble here.

Consider the message this sends to the players: Once you’re good enough to make the Majors, you’re good enough to chew. (Just don’t get sent back to Triple-A. That addiction’s tough to kick.)

 The smokeless tobacco conflict between the Majors and Minors needs to be standardized. Either tobacco should be taken out of the game entirely, from the high school ranks right on up to the Bigs, or Bud Selig needs to call up Minor League Baseball President Patrick O’Conner and ask him, in his nicest tone of voice, to start letting the farmhands get legally addicted to Red Man again.

After all, Patrick, think of the kids.

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Readers Comments (1)

  1. the only published ‘valid’ reason the ban exists in MiLB and not in MLB is that MLB is unionized and MiLB is not. MLB ban on chewing tobacco fell flat during recent CBA for this very reason.

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