- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2000

Chewing tobacco is outlawed in minor-league baseball, the feeder system for the big show. Even college ballplayers face punitive measures for getting caught with a pinch between their cheek and gum.
Yet by whatever name you call it chewing, smokeless or spit tobacco continues to be as much a part of the national pastime as frankfurters and home runs, regardless of the level of play.
The example set by major leaguers exerts a powerful influence on anyone coming up, coaxing collegiate and minor-league prospects to skirt the rules to chew like the pros.
That's one reason this year's Double-A All-Star Game has been dubbed the 2000 TobaccoFree Classic. The minor-league contest, to be held at the Prince George's County Stadium in Bowie, Md., will feature educational inserts in game programs along with an educational exhibit in the parking lot about the effects of tobacco on health.
One of the groups that will make its presence felt July 12 will be the National Spit Tobacco Education Program (NSTEP).
Former major-league player and broadcaster Joe Garagiola, the group's chairman, wants one message to resonate among fans.
"Smokeless does not mean harmless," says Mr. Garagiola, a tireless campaigner against spit tobacco for the past 25 years. "With one word, [smokeless], it makes people feel comfortable."
The event is co-sponsored by the Office to End Smoking in Maryland and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, based in the District.
Mr. Garagiola knows banning the substance isn't the answer.
"I'm not saying stop anything," the ex-catcher says. He just wants people to have the necessary information before they dip.
"When I say 'spit tobacco,' they say, 'It's such a gross habit.' " It's more than gross, he notes it's life-threatening.
He says he watches baseball differently these days. It's tough to admire the strikeout skills of Philadelphia Phillies ace Curt Schilling, for example, when he knows the pitcher took up chewing tobacco when he was 14 and has yet to put it down.
Chewing-tobacco use among major-league players is shrinking, but not quickly enough for Mr. Garagiola.
When players see him walk onto the field, a line of excuses forms in their heads.
"They say, 'Joe, I swear I only use it when I'm at the ballpark,' " he says.
Other players offer less cordial greetings.
"I've been told, in no uncertain terms, 'I don't want to hear your freaking stuff,' " he says.
Thanks to a powerful players union, chewing tobacco remains legal at the major-league level. That hasn't been the case in the minor leagues for a few years.
So it might seem odd that a place such as Prince George's County Stadium would tie such an educational effort into its crown-jewel event. Tobacco is not allowed in the dugouts, fields or clubhouses in the minor leagues. If caught, a player could be fined or suspended.
Tell that to Tom Walter, head coach of George Washington University's baseball squad, which recently had three players sign minor-league contracts.
About half of his Colonials use chewing tobacco even though, he says, "I discourage it as much as I can."
"It's not well-regulated at the college level. Half of the umpires chew," says Mr. Walter, in his fourth season as head coach.

Chewing has been part of the game ever since bat began meeting ball in the mid 19th century. The game's pioneers often used plug tobacco, which came in tiny, compressed cubes. The product later arrived in strips and then as powdered tobacco known as snuff. Today's chewing tobacco has a grainy appearance.
Some players opt for chewing gum, a stickier, healthier alternative. Sunflower seeds also have gained a foothold in major-league dugouts. But the addictive allure of spit tobacco remains a fixture around diamonds on every level.
Chew represents more than just a way to kill time between innings. It's an addiction.
Spit tobacco carries the same habit-forming quality as cigarette smoking, says Dr. Paul A. Matera, vice chairman and professor of emergency medicine with Providence Hospital in Northeast, Washington, D.C.
Some chew is spiked with mint flavor, but the main ingredients typically are the same nicotine and tars found in cigarettes.
The chances of chew's triggering lung cancer is rather small, Dr. Matera says, because the toxins aren't inhaled.
The likelihood of its causing gum or mouth cancer, however, is "extremely high" he says.
"They put a huge wad in their mouth," he says of regular users. "Cancer can start from constant irritation of the skin."
According to a study done during spring training by NSTEP, 70 percent of 401 big leaguers polled use chewing tobacco of some kind. Of that group, more than 65 percent had oral lesions, which later could prove dangerous.
The number of big-league chewers may not be as high as the poll suggests Mr. Garagiola has heard figures as high as 40 percent but the problem persists.
Dr. Matera understands why many players insist on chewing. He played minor-league ball during the late 1960s and early '70s.
Back then, his chew of choice made pink bubbles.
"I always had a piece of gum folded under my hat," he says. "It kept your stress level down."
Chewing tobacco offers a similar comfort, and it makes even a floppy-eared rookie feel like a pro.
"They think, 'I'm doing the same thing [the veterans are] doing. They'll accept me,' " he says.
Mr. Walter understands why baseball, a game he has been around for most of his adult life, inspires tobacco use.
"Baseball is a game where you're sitting around, bored. There's a lot of time between action," he says.
Today's ballplayers, even those who choose to dip, can send a positive message about spit tobacco, Mr. Garagiola says, by not advertising its use so freely.
"If they'd take the [chew tobacco] can out of their pocket, it would help," Mr. Garagiola says.
Dr. Matera says the educational efforts regarding chewing tobacco may be having an effect on today's young sluggers.
"Now, the kids are getting smarter. If their friends are stopping because of the health risks, they may, too," he says.
For those already hooked, there's hope.
Mr. Garagiola suggests those who want to quit not do so cold turkey. It would be better to talk to a cessation specialist and consider an herbal replacement to simulate the feel of the tobacco in the mouth.
"There's no one way to quit," he says.
WHAT: The 2000 TobaccoFree Classic Double A All-Star Game
WHERE: Prince George's County Stadium, 4101 N.E. Crain Highway, Bowie
WHEN: 7 p.m. July 12. Pre-game festivities begin at 4 p.m.
TICKETS: Only $12 lawn tickets remain
PHONE: 301/805-2233

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