Derek Jeter steps to the plate again, his jaw churning ferociously on some foreign, sticky substance. It’s just gum, and Jeter will prove that to the world now and then by blowing a giant bubble. But until the silly pink ball emerges, who knows?
It might be gum, yet it also could be a pouch of smokeless or dip tobacco — that stubborn, traditional chew of choice for baseball players throughout history. And this is exactly what drives Jimmie Lee Solomon crazy, because sometimes he just can’t win. There are enough bad examples in his world. The executive VP of baseball operations for MLB worries that kids will get the wrong idea, and that baseball will be hurled back into the Nicotine Age.
“It’s gum a lot of the time, not tobacco,”says Solomon, who has worked for 16 years to eliminate chewing tobacco and dip from the big-league culture. “Unfortunately, it can have the same, impressionable effect.”
You know the most dangerous of all drugs in baseball? It isn’t steroids, and it isn’t human growth hormone. Those performance enhancers are health terrors in their own right, impacting the very bones of the game. But legal, smokeless tobacco in its multiple chewable forms still provides the addictive poisons linked most conclusively to illness and fatal disease.
The Mayo Clinic identifies an assortment of horrors associated with chewing tobacco, whether it is packaged in the form of leaves, paste or twists: Tooth decay, gum disease, high blood pressure, oral and nonoral cancers.
There are countless, tragic tales of ex-ballplayers who suffered unkind, tobacco-related fates. The most famous of all is probably Babe Ruth, a frequent tobacco chewer, who died at age 52 from complications caused by a cancerous tumor in his throat.
Each year, about 30,000 Americans are diagnosed with throat and mouth cancer, many tobacco-related. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 20% of high school-aged boys admit to having tried chewing tobacco, in one form or another. Gum that is shredded and packaged like chaw likely only contributes to the trouble.
It is a major national health problem, linked fairly or unfairly to baseball by long-term association. When the sport sprouted in the mid-1800s, chewing tobacco was more popular than smoking. Player preference merely reflected that of society. The general public moved to smoking en masse when tobacco spit was linked to the spread of tuberculosis, but ballplayers kept chewing and spitting to keep their mouths moist and their gloves greased.
As late as the 1940s and ’50s, the vast majority of ballplayers chewed tobacco. By the ’70s, a new epidemic arrived. Free samples of dip, which is a more refined form of ground tobacco, became a staple in clubhouses.
The good news is that the numbers have substantially decreased over the past few decades. Education and penalties at the college and minor league levels have made a big difference. The product exists, however, even if the culture driving it has been diminished.
You can spot a handful of users in the Mets’ clubhouse, slightly fewer at Yankee Stadium. It is still there in clubhouses, the tin cans piled high in some lockers. Some teams — the Boston Red Sox, for instance — are more frequent and visible users than others.
A Harvard School of Public Health study found that a 2004 World Series game played between the Red Sox and Cardinals provided 9 minutes and 11 seconds of perceptible smokeless tobacco use by players and most notably by the manager, Terry Francona. That’s essentially 18 free prime-time commercials for manufacturers such as Skoal and Copenhagen.
Ask the dippers about it, many say they are embarrassed and don’t want to comment. Francona has been very public about his longtime battle with the addiction. Most are less forthcoming. Even a conversationalist such as Nick Swisher politely declines to speak on this subject. Many are self-conscious about the possible unwanted influence on young viewers.
“I don’t know if I use it because of nerves, but it’s a bad habit,”said Mets catcher Ramon Castro, who started at 18 and admits to two or three dips a day. “I only use it during the season. My wife won’t let me do it at home.”
Castro began chewing in Puerto Rico, and that has become a fresh problem for baseball. Many Latin players begin their careers in leagues that do not prohibit the use of chewing or dip tobacco. The habit once spread by Swedish immigrants coming to North America is now a part of the Caribbean and Central American baseball subculture.
“Latin players come from Cuba, or the Mexican or Venezuelan summer leagues, they’re not impacted by the rules,”Solomon said.
Solomon is talking about the landmark legislation enacted throughout farm systems after he began working on the project as director of
minor league operations back in 1993 — with the help of former announcer and player Joe Garagiola.
Garagiola chewed for much of his career because he felt it was the thing to do in baseball. Once he learned of its dangers, he dropped all euphemisms and began to call it “spit tobacco”to get his point across about the ugly addiction.
Garagiola calls the habit “a horrible, horrible thing.”He has some health problems now apparently unrelated to his chewing days, and has little patience for what was once his great crusade.
“I got tired of beating my head against the wall,”Garagiola says. “They haven’t done anything about it.”
Solomon argues that considerable progress has been made, in part because of Garagiola’s influence.
“There was a big effort with Fay Vincent, and now Bud Selig has carried through,”he said. “We try to offer alternatives — sunflower seeds, bubble gum for those with oral fixations. We have presentations on the risks. We’ve found less and less users.”
In the minors, and in colleges, tobacco is barred from the ballpark and while traveling with the team. If a player is caught, the fine is $100 for a minor leaguer at the Single-A level and below; $300 for a Double-A player and above. The manager of the guilty player receives the most punitive fine, $1,000.
“But it’s like speeding,”Solomon says. “There are only so many cops who are going to catch them.”
When these same players arrive at the big leagues, no prohibition is in place and there is unlikely to be one anytime soon. Any punitive ban must be part of a new collective bargaining agreement with the Players’ Association, and there are simply too many other topics on the table.
“Let’s just say chewing tobacco is not high on the totem pole,”Solomon says. “It might get done, but you can’t say.”
Meanwhile, players keep chewing and spitting, not always convinced they are inflicting substantial harm upon themselves. Mets catcher Brian Schneider uses the stuff, yet insists he can walk away from it at any time.
“I only do it during batting practice,”he says. “It’s a nonchalant habit, I’m not very conscious of it. I don’t crave it. It started when I reached pro baseball. Before that, my dad would have killed me. And my wife doesn’t let me. She hates it.
“If I never had it again, I wouldn’t think twice.”
He should never do it again, and never think twice.