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National Columnist

Time to spit out chewing tobacco for good in Major League Baseball

Tony Gwynn believed chewing tobacco gave him the cancer that killed him at 54.  (USATSI)
Tony Gwynn believed chewing tobacco gave him the cancer that killed him at 54. (USATSI)

More MLB: Remembering Tony Gwynn | Latest news & notes | Fantasy news

I'm OK with MLB players chewing tobacco on the field if you're OK with MLB players smoking cigarettes out there.

Well no, I'm not. That's stupid. If you're OK with something as dangerous and detrimental as players smoking in the outfield, I'm going to be OK with something as dangerous and detrimental as players chewing in the outfield? No way.

Smoking on the field is against baseball's rules, by the way. If there have been protests about that, I missed them. If anyone, anywhere, thinks baseball is Draconian and fascist and trying to trample on the freedoms of 'Merica by making it illegal to have a cig while playing third base, I've missed that as well. Do you exist, cigarette-supporting MLB fan? Does anyone out there think Rangers manager Ron Washington should be able to smoke next to his lineup card, or that Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter should be able to have a drag during a pitching change?

Anyone?

That's where the argument for chewing tobacco in baseball runs into a wall it can't climb. Not to my satisfaction, anyway. This is dangerous territory to tread, because people -- lots of people -- have their antennae up for anything that wreaks of The Man taking away personal freedoms our ancestors died to protect. As if my grandfather fought in World War II or my Uncle Bill in Korea or my dad in Vietnam so David Ortiz could unleash a stream of brown spit on the perfectly manicured lawns of Fenway.

A little perspective would be nice, is what I'm saying. So would this little bit of abject honesty from me: Until a few minutes ago -- when I was researching this story -- I was against the idea that baseball should ban chewing tobacco.

Researching this story, looking for links that I could hold up to ridicule -- look at these fascists, wanting baseball to ban a perfectly legal substance -- I stumbled onto this video from June of ESPN's Keith Olbermann titled "Baseball Needs to Ban Chewing Tobacco."

Made me sigh, because Olbermann's a fiery guy, and if I was going to hold up his commentary as silly fascist nonsense to ridicule -- and I was -- well, that could get ugly. He could lash back on Twitter or TV. Ah, the hell with it. Bring it on, Keith. That's what I thought as I clicked "play" and listened to him make his pointless argument that ...

Wasn't so pointless at all, because it was a reminder to me that you don't know what you don't know until someone smarter points it out. Here are two things I didn't know, or hadn't considered, or both:

1. Baseball banned chewing tobacco in the minor leagues in 1993. Did you know that? Not me. But by golly minor league baseball has survived. Players still play. Spectators still spectate. Americans still live in America.

2. Baseball doesn't allow smoking on the field. I mean, of course not. As Olbermann pointed out -- another thing I didn't know I didn't know -- Sports Illustrated put a picture of White Sox star Dick Allen on its cover in 1972, a picture of Allen walking through the dugout as he juggles three baseballs with a cigarette dangling from his lips, and people freaked out.

Jarring? Oh yeah. Look at that SI cover yourself. Imagine seeing something like that today, your favorite player sucking on a cig. You're going to have to imagine it, because baseball doesn't want its players and managers smoking in front of fans or TV cameras during games. Which is why people were so fascinated, and the director in charge of camera angles was so quick to change cameras, when Ron Washington was caught taking a drag in the Rangers' dugout in April 2013.

MLB doesn't want it players seen smoking, but it still allows them chew and spit tobacco on the field.  (USATSI)
MLB doesn't want its players seen smoking, but it allows them chew and spit tobacco on the field. (USATSI)

The reality of facts (1) and (2) changed me. Just like that? Pretty much, yeah. Just like that. I'm a big believer in having a strong opinion, but I'm an even bigger believer in having the flexibility to change that opinion when new facts arise. And for me, those two previously unconsidered facts blew me away. How could I -- how could anyone -- possibly argue for a player's right to chew tobacco in the dugout or on the field if I'm OK (and if almost everyone, surely, is OK) with baseball banning cigarettes from the same locations?

Chewing tobacco is just as addictive. It might not be as deadly as cigarettes, but then again, maybe it is. The science is divided on the correlation between Tony Gwynn's death in June from a cancerous tumor in the right side of his mouth and the fact that Gwynn chewed tobacco for all 20 years of his MLB career by putting the chaw in the right side of his mouth. Gwynn himself thought chewing tobacco gave him the cancer that killed him at 54. That's what he told people, and while that's an emotional tug, it's not the emotion of this kindly man's death or his belief in what caused it that makes me think he's right. I think he's right, because I know tobacco causes cancer. We all know that. For whatever reason scientists haven't been able to make a definitive link between chewing tobacco and cancer of the mouth, but that day's coming. That's what I believe.

Even so, since Gwynn died a month ago, I'd been prepared to argue today -- as the All-Star Game approaches Tuesday and the inevitable Tony Gwynn tributes stir up baseball's chewing tobacco issue -- that MLB players are adults, and chewing tobacco is legal, and adults should be able to do what's legal whether it killed Tony Gwynn or not. And then I stumbled onto Keith Olbermann's video, and thank god for that, because what a facile argument mine would have been.

Chewing's legal. Players are adults and want to chew! Let 'em.

Know what else is legal? Drinking beer. And I'll be damned if I'd defend Adam Dunn's right to chug a Bud in the dugout.

The point? Well, it seems so obvious now: Baseball doesn't allow other things that are legal and yet plainly inappropriate. Why would it allow something as definitely addictive, probably lethal and (by the way) visually repulsive as chewing tobacco? Because it always has? That's no argument.

Always isn't forever.

 
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