Major-league baseball aims to snuff out habit of chewing tobacco

July 07, 1991|By John Lawrence | John Lawrence,McClatchy News Service

TACOMA, WASH. AJB — TACOMA, Wash. -- Former New York Yankees left-hander Ron Guidry was a whiz on the mound, but even more amazing in the clubhouse.

Guidry, a Louisiana farm boy, would face the press with a full cheek of chewing tobacco, field the questions politely, and spit into a two-inch soft drink cup, often three or four feet away.

His percentage of hits would make the best NBA free-throwers blush.

It was the kind of legend that, some think, added color to America's grand old game.

At times, it added color to Guidry's complexion. Like the time on national television on a Monday night in Baltimore, when an Orioles batter cracked a line drive at Guidry, and as he pretzeled his body to get out of the way, he swallowed his Red Man.

He had to leave the game.

Or who can forget the persistent image of Lenny Dykstra of the present-day Phillies, standing at the plate with roughage and tobacco juice streaming down his chin.

Or Cubs manager Don Zimmer with his ever-present bulging cheek, reminiscent of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie at high C?

Or the Mariners' early favorite for the chew hall of fame, Ruppert Jones, waving his bat around and spitting juice on the Kingdome carpet?

Speaking of the Hall of Fame, who's going to tell George Brett he can't chew?

The answer? Baseball commissioner Fay Vincent.

Dip cans in the back pocket may soon be a memory: the sport is sanitizing itself. No more slipping on the tobacco juice on the dugout steps -- at least in the lower minors.

Chew (chewing tobacco) and dip (snuff normally placed between the cheek and gum), and, in fact, any form of smokeless tobacco has been banned from use at all rookie and short-season Class A ballparks this season.

In the wake of that, most major-league organizations have adopted policies that basically prevent the open use of tobacco, period, at all levels of minor-league play, including Triple-A leagues like the Pacific Coast League.

Some would applaud the move for its obvious health benefits. Others think of it as another example of what Bob Dylan would call "the guardians and protectors of our minds" at work.

In fact, in announcing the lower-level ban, Vincent sounded like a character from "1984," George Orwell's famous fantasy about an authoritarian regime.

"This action is part of baseball's overall strategy to educate our players to the health risks associated with the use of smokeless tobacco and to disassociate the game from its use."

What is troubling is that Vincent would equate a ban of the substance with "education." Education normally is pictured as the opposite of a ban.

Baseball's real motive may be evident in a comment by Steve Spry, the Tacoma Tigers' clubhouse boss.

"They are definitely trying to get rid of the problem," Spry said. "If a player buys it on his own, it's his problem. If you supply it to him, you'll be more directly responsible."

Indeed, the growing threat of lawsuits against tobacco companies, and the possible extension of that to baseball teams as suppliers, could be the bottom line.

At any rate, smokeless tobacco has not been supplied in major-league clubhouses (free) since 1986.

You still see the gum and the sunflower seeds laid out for the taking. But tobacco wouldn't be in line with this politically correct age.

The theory and real motives may be muddled, but few will dispute the practical value of baseball's attempt.

The battle is over at the lower levels, raging in full at the Triple-A level and will next be played out in major-league clubhouses.

Depending on the organization, there are slightly different rules. But between the lines one thing is clear: Baseball doesn't want the impression it condones the habit in any way.

With the Tigers, the threat to smokeless tobacco, which has no clear second-hand health effects, has been greeted with mixed emotions by two practitioners of a habit that was, at one time, as synonymous with the game as ball or glove.

Dann Howitt, an outfielder-first baseman, who once swallowed his dip a la Guidry, approves of baseball's disassociation from the product but dislikes the larger implication that he's being denied his freedom to choose.

"I think that's a personal decision -- whether a grown man wants to chew tobacco or not," Howitt said.

"I don't condone it all. If there's one guy here doesn't want to

quit or isn't trying to quit, he's lying.

"This is something that started when I was young. If I could hand out any advice, it's that it's a stupid thing to do. But to go to a ballplayer and say, 'No, you don't dip' -- well, I'm 27 years old. Those decisions should be left up to the person."

As to the image-conscious rules, Howitt can but applaud them.

"Oakland has a rule that they don't like you carrying it or showing it. I agree with that -- fully. It doesn't bother me that they don't give it out in the clubhouse anymore. You should pay for it.

"But as far as saying, 'No,' and completely banning it form the game, I think that'd be ridiculous."

His teammate, Scott Hemond -- a chewer -- takes a more militant stand.

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