By Andy Solomon
For the past 12 years, I have worked for the NCAA as a site representative at postseason baseball regionals and super regionals. One of my responsibilities is to make certain the participants follow the rules of the well-distributed NCAA manual.
One of the items we review in the pretournament meetings is the NCAA’s clearly written “no tobacco rule.” Despite these warnings, I invariably have to remind some that tobacco is banned. This year, I had to call out a pitching coach for carrying a tin of smokeless tobacco I saw in his back pocket.
“You know better,” I emphasized. He concurred and apologized.
And then I return home and learn that Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn had died from oral cancer at age 54. I thought about that pitching coach.
I suspected he started dipping during while in high school and somehow smuggled it in throughout his college years. And there is coaching with a tin clearly visible to me in his back pocket. While it is not against the law, it is against the NCAA’s “law.”
It has also been illegal to use tobacco in minor league baseball since 1993; in the majors, a complete ban has not been implemented, but team personnel are no longer allowed to present any evidence of tobacco usage in front of fans.
That was a positive step by Major League Baseball when it signed its current labor agreement with the players’ union in 2011 but for many it came up short. The measures mandated that smokeless tobacco be kept out of view from fans and TV cameras. That’s why we no longer see those circular cans in pockets and big wads in their cheeks.
But when it came to banning the product altogether the players’ union objected. Instead it agreed to mandatory oral exams during spring training as well as an extensive education campaign and cessation support system.
I can imagine how some of those exams go:
Doctor: “I’m concerned about this area where you put your tobacco. You’re at risk for oral cancer and you should stop.”
Player (reaching for his tin while walking away): “Okay. Thanks, doc.”
Addictions aren’t easily broken, especially in a culture where tobacco is as ingrained as sunflower seeds and bubble gum. Having a ban in the minors, but not the majors, simply means users will cheat or find workarounds until they’re called up. Then they’re free to dip and chew and spit brown saliva at will. As long as fans don’t see them doing it.
This has nothing to do with legalities or free choice. If adults want to kill themselves through smoking or drinking, they have every right.
However, employers establish what’s acceptable in the workplace. Beards are perfectly legal, but they’re not allowed if you play for the New York Yankees. Many teams institute dress codes for traveling.
No one sees the players’ union objecting to those measures. However, this one could be a lifesaver.
Will Gwynn’s death be a turning point? We can only hope so.
Maybe Gwynn’s final plea in an education film produced by MLB and the Pro Baseball Athletic Trainers Society will help when it’s released to all major and minor leaguers later this year.
Gwynn reportedly has said: “My advice to anyone would be if you aren’t using spit tobacco, please don’t start. And if you are using, try to quit. If not for yourself, then do it for the people you love.”
Clearly, he didn’t listen to his own advice or did so after it was too late. And what a shame that is. Now he’s gone, and his family is left with just memories and his much-too-early death.
Maybe people – especially baseball people – will listen intently. After all, it will be a dead Hall of Famer talking.