The rifle report of balls popping into gloves, the finessed footwork of a double play, the sludgy streams of tobacco exiting mouths.
One of those mainstays of the national pastime could soon vanish from California’s major-league baseball fields.
Already banned in minor-league parks, tobacco would be prohibited at every baseball venue in California under legislation announced Tuesday by Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond. Thurmond and public health advocates justified the legislation as a way to discourage tobacco use by youths, and hoped it could send a message to other states, organized baseball and the players.
“I’m an advocate to youth, and this is just another way to help young people,” Thurmond said. “If this effort can help young athletes and prevent them from having cancer or other illnesses, then I think it’s worth it.”
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As with laws barring smoking in public places, anyone in violation could be cited – ballplayers included. The extent of those penalties will be hammered out as the bill works its way through the Legislature. Players from out-of-state teams also would need to forgo tobacco while playing in any of California’s five major-league ballparks.
A spokesman for Altria, whose subsidiaries include US Smokeless Tobacco Company, declined to comment.
Speaking at a midtown Sacramento baseball diamond, Thurmond called the bill a way to prevent young ballplayers from emulating major-league idols who indulge in chewing tobacco.
A young shortstop said some kids “think it’s really cool to be like the pros and have a big wad in their mouth.”
“When I see players on TV chewing tobacco, I am sad and confused,” 10-year-old North Oakland Lake Monsters shortstop Jonah Broscow said. “It must be really, really hard to stop,” he added, “and it would be so great if they were doing something healthier, like eating sunflower seeds or chewing gum.”
The recent death of San Diego Padres great and careerlong tobacco user Tony Gwynn illustrated the risks of smokeless tobacco use. Advocates said they were motivated in part by a desire to prevent more athletes from suffering.
“This might be one additional piece of the legacy of a great player like Tony Gwynn,” said Thurmond, a Philadelphia Phillies fan who also noted former Phillies pitcher Curt Schilling speaking out about his tobacco use after a bout with oral cancer.
After the loss of Gwynn, who died at 54 of cancer he attributed to chewing tobacco, numerous players said they were re-examining their routine of using tobacco. Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg, who played for Gwynn at San Diego State University, vowed to quit after the loss of his former coach.
Such instances of soul-searching aside, smokeless tobacco use remains prevalent in the major leagues. Cheeks bulging with smokeless tobacco, also known as dip, have remained on display in the majors even with a minor-league prohibition in place since 1993.
“Especially in this baseball world, it’s kind of been used throughout time,” Oakland Athletics second baseman Eric Sogard told The Bee last June.
League officials hope to change that. But first they must persuade the players.
Not long after Gwynn’s death, then-Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig sent a letter to public health groups, including the American Cancer Society and the American Medical Association, that advocated doing “everything possible to eliminate smokeless tobacco from the game,” a goal the league reiterated Tuesday.
“Major League Baseball has long supported a ban of smokeless tobacco at the Major League level,” a league statement said. “We ardently believe that children should not use or be exposed to smokeless tobacco, and we support the spirit of this initiative in California and any others that would help achieve this important goal.”
But the union representing ballplayers must agree to any changes by the league. Negotiations around an outright ban resulted in the Major League Baseball Players Association agreeing to prohibit players and coaches from using tobacco during television interviews and official appearances, Selig wrote in his June letter, but he said the union resisted a total ban as players insisted that “as adults, they have the right to make their own choices.”
A spokesman from the players association did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Major-league parks in San Diego, St. Louis, Seattle and Milwaukee already ban tobacco use in the stands, according to backers of Thurmond’s bill, but none prevents players from dipping on the field or in dugouts. Thurmond said his bill could launch a rally toward a nationwide ban.
“Sometimes you’ve got to drop a single to get to a home run,” Thurmond said. “Why not start here?”
California has one of the lowest smoking rates in the nation, but public health experts note that smokeless tobacco use has not declined at the same pace. They cite U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration data showing that 535,000 adolescents across the country tried chewing tobacco in 2013.
“The use of smokeless tobacco by major league players is a core reason for that,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids. Young athletes “see their heroes every single day on the mound, on the playing field,” he said, “and there isn’t such a thing as an adolescent boy that doesn’t want to be a major leaguer, be just like all of those major leaguers out there.”
As they seek to clamp down on tobacco use, Thurmond and his allies will contend with a tobacco industry that has become increasingly assertive in Sacramento.
Elected officials’ reluctance to accept tobacco company contributions has ebbed over the years, with members of both parties pulling down hundreds of thousands of dollars from the industry in recent years. California lawmakers so far have not regulated the booming e-cigarette industry, though public health officials have embarked on a new campaign to discourage “vaping.”
Independent committees spent more than $600,000 in the weeks before the November election to elect Thurmond. The most active of those, Alliance for California’s Tomorrow, was partly funded by tobacco interests, state records show.
But Thurmond said he is determined to act despite likely industry opposition.
“Anybody who wants to take on the issue and say that you shouldn’t do it because of barriers,” he said, “I would say, ‘Look, let’s not let inconvenience stop someone from being healthy.’”
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.