LOS ANGELES (AP) — California lawmakers have taken the first step toward accomplishing something Major League Baseball could never do on its own: Stop players from using smokeless tobacco.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill last weekend banning the use of smokeless tobacco in all California ballparks. And with his signature, a practice dating to the days of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb now seems headed toward the sport’s endangered species list.
Although California is only one state, it is home to five of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams, and team owners themselves have been pressing for a ban for years. Last May they got one in San Francisco, home of the reigning World Series champion Giants. In August they got another in Boston, site of fabled Fenway Park, and Los Angeles was considering the idea, which is supported by the hometown Dodgers.
Major League Baseball still needs buy-in from the players, however, because the statewide ban that takes effect before next season has no provision for enforcement.
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“The question we’ve been asked is are we going to have police officers walking around checking lips, and no, that’s not the case,” said Opio Dupree, chief of staff to Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, who introduced the bill. “It’s going to be left to the team and the league.”
Interviews with players in recent years indicate that many are ready to quit — if they can.
“I grew up with it,” pitcher Jake Peavy told the Boston Globe last year when the newspaper polled 58 players the Boston Red Sox had invited to spring training and found 21 were users.
“It was big with my family,” said Peavy, who is now with the Giants. “Next thing you know, you’re buying cans and you’re addicted to nicotine.”
He added he would like to quit to set a better example for his sons.
Last year’s World Series MVP, Giants ace Madison Bumgarner, also uses smokeless tobacco. He told The Associated Press earlier this year he planned to quit after San Francisco became the first city in the nation to adopt a ban. That one, like the statewide provision, also takes effect next year.
“I’ll be all right. I can quit,” Bumgarner said in August. “I quit every once in a while for a little while to make sure I can do it.”
Use of smokeless tobacco has been banned in the minor leagues for more than 20 years, but Major League Baseball and its players union haven’t been able to reach agreement on a similar restriction. Players and coaches are prohibited from chewing tobacco during television interviews and can’t be seen carrying tobacco products when fans are in the ballparks. But use during the game continues, though it’s different than it used to be.
Gone for the most part are players like New York Yankees reliever Sparky Lyle who stuffed wads of chewing tobacco in their cheeks. Now players are more apt to “dip.” They place pinches of tobacco between their lip and gum. It produces saliva but not the streams of spit seen with chaws of tobacco.
Christian Zwicky, a former Southern California Babe Ruth League most valuable player who grew up watching the Dodgers play, said he never cared for seeing all that tobacco chewing and the spitting of tobacco juice that follows.
It didn’t influence him to take up the practice, the 22-year-old college student said, but he can see how it might have affected others.
“I understand the sentiment there,” said Zwicky, who added he’s not a big fan of government regulation but supports this law. “You don’t want these people that kids look up to using these products that could influence children in a negative way.”
Moves to adopt a comprehensive ban have been gaining support in recent years, fueled by such things as last year’s death of popular Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres, who blamed his mouth cancer on years of chewing tobacco. Former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, a cancer survivor, has also taken up the cause.
“It’s a tough deal for some of these players who have grown up playing with it and there are so many triggers in the game,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy told the AP earlier this year.
“I certainly don’t endorse it,” said Bochy, an on-and-off-again user for decades. “With my two sons, the one thing I asked them is don’t ever start dipping.”