Ball without tobacco--nothing to spit at


March 24, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

The people who run baseball are toying with the idea of outlawing chewing tobacco. It is one of those politically correct conceits that won't survive and shouldn't anyway.

It will be tested this year in a couple of low minor leagues, but the implication is clear. The people who run baseball want to see how it goes, if there is an outcry, if the lawyers show up. If all goes well, maybe they would press upward.

What they don't understand, of course, is that the 18-year-olds in the low minors are too terrified to make noise about anything. Their lives are 12-hour bus rides, mush for dinner and dirty water on the clubhouse floor, but they know better than to gripe if they want their careers extended beyond the next dawn.

Major-leaguers, meanwhile, start screaming about unfair labor practices if the post-game buffet is low on shrimp.

If the people who run baseball actually tried to ban chewing tobacco in the majors, Don Fehr would be filing briefs within the hour and phoning reporters with a 45-minute harangue of Swaggartian fire about personal freedoms and what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. The whole thing would be off within 48 hours.

It'll never happen. The real surprise is that baseball is even trying this out. It smacks of one of those NFL-nik, behavior-control dictums.

If I close my eyes, I can almost hear Paul Tagliabue explaining in his drone that this is in the players' best interests and anyone who violates the law will be fined, suspended and forced to listen to tapes of Bill Walsh talking run-pass theory.

The other point, of course, is that baseball hasn't mentioned anything about a ban on tobacco advertising.

Anyway, let's get to the nut of the issue here. The principle is all wrong. Baseball without chewing tobacco would not be the baseball we know. They might as well start using day-glo balls.

To begin with, the players might have to learn to speak in complete sentences, a radical concept. As it stands now, most of my clubhouse conversations run along these lines:

Me: "Sluggo, did you have your high heater humming?"

Sluggo: "Well, mfft threw the vbbbst." (Spews brown liquid into cup.)

A poet, or maybe it was an op-ed writer, once said that conversation was the thread that joined baseball's days. The truth is that hazarding a guess about the conversation you just had is the thread that joins baseball's days. No dialogue is complete without a tobacco-related fill-in-the-blank.

If Nixon -- Richard, not Donnell -- had been a manager instead of a president, no one would have wondered about those cloudy 18 minutes on his tapes. Everyone would have understood that he was just dippin'.

Chewing tobacco is all that I remember about my first trip to a major-league clubhouse. I was 20, a student intern. Don Zimmer was sitting in the manager's office. This is a man who chews such a prodigious plug that it appears he has a can of soda lodged in his jaw.

He was leaning back in his chair, scratching his perfectly round belly. A couple of reporters were asking him questions.

Question: "Zim, who's starting Thursday night?"

Zim: "Probaby Zlfvz or Fttrwp."

(I watched, incredulous, as the reporters wrote something down.)

Question: "Are you satisfied with Billy Bob right now?"

Zim: (Spews brown liquid.) "Vlrda." (Spews more brown liquid.)

Again, the reporters nodded and wrote. Dazed, and a little discouraged, I returned to the office and asked my editor if perhaps there was a great secret of hardball life to which I was not privileged.

I try to imagine the game without chewing tobacco, and I can't summon it. Zim still has a job -- my goodness, the man would seem positively naked without that peninsula growing out of the side of his mouth. Batting practice would be soundless and depressing without the constant hawking, gobbing and pffffting.

Dugout floors just wouldn't be dugout floors without those state-o'-Maine-shaped stains that stick to your shoes in the July heat.

Some players might just dry up and disappear, as the Wicked Witch did. Len Dykstra chews a gob the size of a softball, drools juice down the front of his shirt and smokes cigarettes at the same time. He just revels in the slop. Take his tobacco away and his average would drop a hundred points.

The politically correct stand, of course, would be to applaud baseball for crusading against tobacco. Chewing tobacco is dangerous. It can cause cancer. The players would indeed be better off it were banned. We all know that.

But as Don Fehr would say, and say again, it's a free country. And one of the beauties of baseball is its democracy. Football is corporate, controlled. A baseball clubhouse isn't exactly an ACLU office, but players are more free to do and say what they want.

Violating that spirit would be wrong. Yes, the players would be better off if they weren't allowed to chew. But as the old saying goes, "Mrrfft gllfh rbbhfi rqlorg."

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