Baseball may or may not be America's pastime, but it still maintains a powerful hold on Americans. The recent opening of spring training and the prospect of a new season energize many fans, especially youngsters who are quick to emulate the major league players they see on the field. There's nothing wrong with such hero worship, particularly if it leads to positive results. Sometimes, though, major leaguers send a message that is far from positive. That's certainly the case when it comes to their use of chewing, or smokeless, tobacco.
Sometimes it seems that chewing tobacco and big league baseball are inseparable. Even a casual viewer of the game has to notice players with a big wad of the stuff stuck in a jaw and the almost constant spitting that results. Not all players chew, but so many do that it's hardly a wonder that impressionable kids believe that tobacco use is acceptable.
After all, their reasoning probably goes, if a major leaguer chews tobacco, what could be wrong with me following his lead. The answer, of course, is that lots of things can and do go wrong.
Just ask Brett Butler, who played for the Atlanta Braves, the Los Angeles Dodgers and three other teams in his career. He was acclaimed as a role model on and off the field. He did chew tobacco, though. "I probably went through a can every two or three days," he recalls. The result: He was diagnosed with oral cancer before he was 40.
There is a connection between the use of chewing tobacco and oral cancer. The link is so strong, in fact, that chewing tobacco was prohibited in the minor leagues almost two decades ago. It's banned in college games, too. Major League Baseball, it seems, is the only holdout. That's bad for the sport, bad for the players who chew and especially bad for impressionable youngsters who might follow the lead of their idol.
Fortunately, there's a move afoot to put an end to the nasty spectacle of players chewing and spitting. Late last year, 10 anti-tobacco groups, including the American Cancer Society, asked major league Commissioner Bud Selig and Michael Weiner, head of the players' association, to ban tobacco use in the big leagues. Earlier this month, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey did the same in an open letter. Their requests should be heeded.
It will take a negotiated agreement between Major League Baseball and its players' association to institute a tobacco ban. There's really nothing to negotiate. Tobacco is detrimental to the image of the game and to those who play it. Its continued use sends a dangerous message to young fans who look up to players as role models. The ban should be enacted promptly.