Twenty-five years ago, I was sitting in the dugout at Anaheim Stadium with Angel trainer Ned Bergert, talking about baseball’s dirty—make that evil—little secret: smokeless tobacco.
Bergert had recently quit the habit he acquired in the minor leagues. “It was always a baseball thing, not a tobacco thing,” he said. He quit one day when he was mowing the lawn and noticed his 3-year-old son was following—literally in his footsteps—with his toy mower.
“I turned around and saw him spitting like I was,” he said. “That really started the wheels turning.”
I told Ned that Sean Marsee was the reason I would never use the stuff … and was happy to have only daughters, since this plague seems to only strike males.
Marsee, a 19-year-old from Oklahoma, had recently died of mouth cancer after having dipped snuff for nearly six years, starting as a Little Leaguer who had watched his puffed-cheek Major League idols spewing juice … and, as it turns out, death.
Hey, I enjoy watching those tight high-definition shots of major leaguers squirting saliva across my living room as much as the next guy. It’s amusing, in an ignoble way, I guess, kind of like watching a 2-year-old burst into laughter when he passes gas.
So I would never ban spitting. It’s an integral part of the game, you know, like cup adjusting and undoing and redoing batting-glove Velcro.
But no brown streams, please, just good old spittle.
Look, I could not care any less how multi-millionaire athletes choose to kill themselves, but I deplore the idea of a young man’s life being wasted because he got hooked on a drug pushed by a pro athlete in the spotlight. So any pro athlete who uses it while under the scrutiny of a television camera ought to be slapped … hard … and then forced to spend a day talking to Sean Marsee’s mom.
But I thought Major League Baseball had taken action that would help make sure there wouldn’t be more Sean Marsees.
They banned the stuff in the minor leagues, hoping fewer players would arrive in the bigs with a tobacco jones tucked between their cheek and gum. They introduced cancer education and screening programs in spring training. And they “forbid” the use of smokeless tobacco on big league playing fields.
But the players were still chewing and spitting in the dugout because their union considered a complete ban an infringement on players’ freedom. (I’m pretty sure the founding father’s included a phrase in the Bill of Rights that protects the right to chew tobacco on television.)
And who’s to say what’s making a guy’s cheek puff out? Could be a big wad of gum, right?
Since the advent of the DVR, I haven’t watched many sporting events in real time, fast-forwarding my way through all the inaction to get to the action. So I stowed the remote and plopped in my recliner to check out the opening game of the World Series. I didn’t have to wait long to see the problem is not gone.
In the first inning, Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton took his warm-up swings in the on-deck circle … with a huge gob of black goo in front of his teeth.
And that’s why I applaud the four U.S. senators and health officials from cities hosting the World Series in their plea to the players union, urging them to agree on a ban on chewing tobacco at games and on camera.
The Centers for Disease Control says that smokeless tobacco can cause cancer, oral health problems and nicotine addiction, and anybody who ever quit smoking has a horror tale about kicking that habit. Despite the risks, the CDC's most recent survey found that in 2009, 15% of high school boys used smokeless tobacco, an increase of more than 33% over 2003.
So what possesses young men to stuff wads of gooey ground-up leaves into their mouths?
In some parts of the country, the habit is passed down through the generations. One study of 112 Arkansas kindergartners revealed that 21% had used smokeless tobacco. But the great majority of new users are teen-age boys who think that a round worn spot on the back of their jeans—produced by the ever-present can of snuff—is a symbol of virility and toughness.
For many, it starts on baseball diamonds, where youngsters mimic every mannerism of their heroes. Like Angel trainer Bergert says, it’s not even a tobacco thing, it’s a baseball thing … and that has to change.
About a year ago, I saw a neighbor, a nice kid who joined the Marines days after graduating high school, with a can in his pocket. I talked to him about the dangers and he said, “It’s not like I’m going to do it forever.”
Sean Marsee didn’t figure he’d be doing it forever, either. Of course he probably figured “forever” would be a little longer than 19 years.
After most of his tongue and jawbone had been removed and he had just discovered new lumps in his neck, just a few weeks before he died, Sean Marsee confessed to his mother that he still craved snuff.
About this column: John Weyler has lived in Orange County for almost 50 years. His weekly regional columns offer his unique, and often irreverent, take on life in the O.C.