Her pitch up to snuff, Shalala targets smokeless tobacco Health secretary urges players to decrease use

April 01, 1998|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

"I'm just anxious to get it near where the catcher is," U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala said yesterday before she threw out the first pitch of the Orioles' opener at Camden Yards. "There are no high expectations."

Shalala, coached decades ago by current New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner in Cleveland's female softball leagues, needn't have worried. Unlike other dignitaries who have been chosen for the honor, Shalala pitched the full 60 feet, 6 inches and easily found the mitt of Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles.

"If you go up to George Steinbrenner and ask him if I played for him, he'll say, 'She's the best shortstop I've ever had,' " Shalala said of her ball-playing pedigree. "I was just pleased that I threw from the mound and was able to get the ball near the plate."

Though Shalala made her task seem easy, achieving the purpose of her visit is not. Shalala made the appearance as part of her campaign to decrease the use of smokeless tobacco.

Earlier, the department held a news conference in Washington announcing a screening program for major-leaguers who use smokeless tobacco, with Shalala appearing alongside Orioles owner Peter Angelos and Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Donald Fehr.

The program -- used by nine teams last month during spring training -- offers oral examinations for players concerned with their tobacco use.

In the past, baseball has been an unequal partner of sorts with the tobacco industry. A good portion of major-league players used spit tobacco, and products such as Big League Chew bubble gum served as a form of simulated tobacco use for young people.

"Players, managers and owners in organized baseball made the decision to break the connection between baseball and spit tobacco," Shalala said.

Dr. John C. Greene, an oral cancer specialist, found oral lesions on 59 percent of the 141 players he examined during spring training. Fifteen, including Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Curt Schilling, were advised to have diagnostic biopsies.

Greene said this illustrates the extent to which tobacco use permeates the sport's culture. He said 35 to 40 percent of major-leaguers still use it, and 30 percent of minor-leaguers defy the ban.

"They'll hide it in the back of their mouth," Greene said, "and they'll swallow it instead of spitting it out."

Pub Date: 4/01/98

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