This June 16 will mark two years since Paul Molitor lost his close friend and fellow hall of famer Tony Gwynn at age 54 to parotid (mouth) cancer.
Before he died, Gwynn blamed his failing health on years of chewing tobacco on a baseball field, a pastime Molitor still includes as part of his daily work routine.
“Tony’s case being an extreme consequence of usage and what he had to endure before his passing,” Molitor said, “I think everyone that uses has some idea of that. … Baseball? It’s part of its history, right or wrong,”
Gwynn’s memory was invoked last month by a Toronto lawmaker seeking to ban the use of smokeless tobacco at all public parks, baseball fields and hockey rinks in the city. That would include Rogers Centre, home to the Toronto Blue Jays and Molitor’s former playing home.
Council member Joe Mihevc, chairman of Toronto’s board of health, plans to introduce his anti-tobacco motion at the board’s March 21 meeting. Should it pass, Toronto would join San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and likely New York among major cities that ban the use of smokeless tobacco in their ballparks and arenas.
The New York Mets and Yankees recently joined the New York City Health Department in support of city-proposed legislation that would ban smokeless tobacco from all public sports venues, including Citi Field and Yankee Stadium.
In addition, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation in October that would extend the ban throughout the state in time for the 2017 baseball season. That would cover all five of the state’s major league clubs: San Francisco Giants, Oakland A’s, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and San Diego Padres.
How this trend will impact the sport this season and in coming years has become an intriguing topic.
“It’s just one of those things we’re going to have to see how it unfolds in the cities that are initiating this thing,” Molitor said.
The topic was among the issues addressed Wednesday morning in the Twins clubhouse during the annual spring briefing by the Major League Baseball Players Association.
“We already have a rule that’s been negotiated with Major League Baseball,” said Tony Clark, executive director of the players’ union. “We also understand and appreciate that providing guys support has been important and we think significant in what the game has slowly been able to do. We believe, based on the numbers we’ve heard, that use has dropped significantly.”
Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Brian Dozier are among Twins players who still use smokeless tobacco. Molitor said he didn’t know the percentage of Twins players who use but said it remains “rather significant.”
Oswaldo Arcia typically plays with an oversized wad of gum in his cheek that is often mistaken for tobacco.
Even while visiting parks where the practice is banned, big-league players would likely be able to use smokeless tobacco in the clubhouse. Once they enter the dugout or the playing field, the issue of enforcement comes to the fore.
“Certain cities want to pass ordinances and laws; I don’t even know who’s in charge of enforcing that law,” said Twins pitcher Kyle Gibson, an alternate union representative. “I’m sure at some point, it’s going to come down to who wants to enforce it and where they want to enforce it, really.”
Gibson, who does not use tobacco products, echoed Clark’s stance in stating that players don’t intend to flout the new policies.
“We’re going to abide by the law,” Gibson said. “That’s going to be part of it. I’m sure it’s going to be an adjustment. It’s similar to where some cities passed no-smoking (laws) in the restaurants, and the people had to adjust.”
Rob Manfred, commissioner of Major League Baseball, noted last month during a news conference in Bonita Springs, Fla., that baseball has banned smokeless tobacco in the minor leagues for the past decade and a half. The issue could potentially be raised in upcoming talks for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
“For many years, we’ve been clear about baseball’s stance on smokeless tobacco,” Manfred said. “It’s banned in the minor leagues. We have proposed on a number of occasions a similar ban at the big-league level. We’ve not been able to negotiate it.”
Regardless of the enforcement piece, the expectation is clear from MLB’s perspective.
“In terms of it being an issue of contention between us and the players’ association, the law’s the law,” Manfred said. “I mean, we didn’t pass the law. Baseball players are like everybody else. They’ve got to obey the law.”
During the last round of talks in 2011, the players’ union agreed to a big-league ban on smokeless tobacco tins being carried in players’ back pockets. Players also agreed to remove their chaw before conducting interviews and while appearing at team-sponsored events.
The union offers a confidential cessation program for players that wish to give up “dipping.” Last season the MLBPA and MLB jointly hired Dr. Michael Steinberg, director of the Rutgers University tobacco-independence program, to serve as a consultant.
Players were reminded during Wednesday’s union meeting that help is a phone call away.
While privately noting smokeless tobacco is still a legal product for U.S. adults, union officials pledge to cooperate with the push to ultimately rid the sport of the long-held habit.
“We’ve created options for guys who are looking to stop dipping or chewing with a formal cessation program we’ve never had before and we continue to educate guys on the issues related to tobacco use,” Clark said. “Our focus continues to remain, while not breaking any of the local and state laws, on providing education and support for the guys so they can make the decisions that are best for them and their families.”
Due to the fact smokeless tobacco could be banned in nearly a third of all big-league ballparks by the start of next season, there is an aspect of potential competitive disadvantage for players able to “dip” in the remaining workplaces. The adjustment for such players might be akin to trying to play on a given day without the benefit of their usual coffee fix.
“It is a concern and it is a valid concern,” Clark said, “and it is one that not everybody seems to be near as concerned about. That is something that, yes, we are paying a lot of attention to.”
The bans apply to fans as well, so players have wondered if local law enforcement will hand out citations to season-ticket holders that might be using smokeless tobacco. The ability to “dip” in the clubhouse remains vital to players, who might be able to run back upstairs between innings for a quick fix.
“There are considerations that are part of those legislations,” Clark said, “that afford guys options while appreciating that there is a rule in place that governs what happens outside.”
Molitor, who played for tobacco-chewing managers such as Tom Kelly and Harvey Kuenn, is as curious as anyone to see how the bans in select cities will impact the game in which he has made his living for nearly four decades.
“It’s going to change,” he said. “No one really knows how it’s going to be policed: locker room, in-game. No one knows about a fine that players are going to face. There are some unknowns about how it’s going to be implemented.”
He spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully.
“I can’t say I’m a proponent of the fact they’re doing that,” Molitor said. “Anybody that uses would have to figure out what to do with that.”