Habit that’s tough to truly snuff

Smokeless tobacco re­mains in­grained in base­ball, de­spite bans, warn­ings and Gwynn’s death

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - BY GARY KLEIN

Rick Van­der­hook played for Cal State Fuller­ton’s 1984 Col­lege World Se­ries cham­pi­onship team and was a Ti­tans as­sis­tant when they won two more. So he re­mem­bers the days when cans and pouches of smokeless tobacco were om­nipresent in the uni­form pock­ets of the par­tic­i­pants.

Not any­more. The NCAA banned tobacco use on the field in the early 1990s.

“It’s prob­a­bly cut back, I’ll say, al­most 90% com­pared to what it was 25 years ago,” said Van­der­hook, who in his fourth sea­son as head coach has guided the Ti­tans back to Omaha, where they will open against de­fend­ing na­tional cham­pion Van­der­bilt on Sun­day at 5 p.m.

Smokeless tobacco re­mains in­grained in base­ball cul­ture, how­ever, in­clud­ing the col­lege and high school lev­els, where it is banned.

“It sounds bad, but it’s part of the game,” said Fuller­ton pitcher Thomas Eshel­man, echo­ing nearly ev­ery coach and player in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle.

Mi­nor league play­ers can be fined for hav­ing tobacco prod­ucts in their locker or par­tak­ing on the field. Ma­jor lea­guers are pro­hib­ited from us­ing tobacco dur­ing tele­vised in­ter­views and player ap­pear­ances. But they are oth­er­wise not pro­hib­ited fro­mus­ing it on the field.

Be­fore he died of sali­vary gland can­cer last year, base­ball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn said he be­lieved his habit of us­ing smokeless tobacco caused the dis­ease that

Tobacco, took his life at age 54.

Curt Schilling, a for­mer All-Star pitcher, said last year he had un­der­gone treat­ment for can­cer that re­sulted from smokeless tobacco use. In April, he penned an open let­ter to his younger self warn­ing of the dan­gers.

And last month, the mayor of San Fran­cisco signed an or­di­nance that in 2016 will ban tobacco from all sport­ing venues in the city, in­clud­ing AT&T Park, home of the de­fend­ing World Se­ries cham­pion San Fran­cisco Gi­ants.

That has not stopped many col­lege play­ers from us­ing smokeless tobacco.

“No mat­ter how many times you look a guy in the eye and say Tony Gwynn and Curt Schilling, if that guy wants to dip, he’s go­ing to find a way,” said Andy Lopez, who guided Pep­per­dine and Ari­zona to na­tional ti­tles be­fore re­tir­ing last month af­ter 33 years as a col­lege coach.

The NCAA pro­hibits play­ers, coaches, um­pires, ath­letic train­ers and man­agers from us­ing tobacco at game sites. If um­pires catch play­ers us­ing tobacco, the player and coach face ejec­tion.

“There is zero tol­er­ance,” said Chuck Lyon, a col­lege um­pire for nearly three decades.

Ac­cord­ing to the NCAA rule book, “Um­pires who use tobacco be­fore, dur­ing or af­ter a game in the vicin­ity of the site shall be re­ported to and pun­ished by the proper dis­ci­plinary author­ity.”

Play­ers and coaches in­ter­viewed for this story said they had seen um­pires us­ing tobacco. But Lyon said, “Asa crew chief, I would turn that in im­me­di­ately.”

Re­sults of the NCAA’s most re­cent qua­dren­nial sur­vey of about 21,000 col­lege ath­letes from all sports showed that tobacco use by col­lege base­ball play­ers was de­creas­ing. The 2013 re­sults, re­leased last July in a re­port ti­tled, “NCAA Na­tional Study of Sub­stance Abuse Habits of Col­lege Stu­dent-Ath­letes,” showed a drop in “spit” to­bac­couse since 2009.

In 2005, the over­all per­cent­age of ac­knowl­edged use in the pre­vi­ous 12 months was 42.5%. It climbed to 52.3% in 2009, but dropped to 47.2% in 2013 — though that’s still nearly half of the play­ers in a sport in which it is banned.

Coaches said they ad­dress tobacco with their play­ers be­fore ev­ery sea­son.

“You also bring it up through­out the sea­son,” UCLA Coach John Sav­age said, “but it’s not a daily re­minder.”

Cal State Northridge Coach Greg Moore said, “We ed­u­cate them con­stantly and talk about their choices.” But, he added, “I know that me say­ing smokeless tobacco is un­healthy is not go­ing to get a guy to change his habit.”

The Cal­i­for­nia In­ter­scholas­tic Fed­er­a­tion, which gov­erns high school sports in the state, for­bids the use of tobacco prod­ucts by ath­letes and coaches. But most play­ers say they first ex­per­i­mented with tobacco in high school.

“They get into it for the same rea­son 12-year-olds start smok­ing — they think it’s a cool thing to do,” UC Irvine Coach Mike Gille­spie said.

Chatsworth Coach Tom Meus born said tobacco use by play­ers has dropped dramatically since he be­gan at the school in 1990. “I think they un­der­stand and are be­com­ing more health con­scious with their train­ing and diet,” he said.

Jim Ozella, Ne­whall Hart’s coach since 2000, also sees fewer high school play­ers us­ing tobacco. “I just bring up the topic of Tony Gwynn,” said Ozella, whose son worked as an equip­ment manager at San Diego State when Gwynn coached there.

Col­lege play­ers said they were aware of the risks of us­ing tobacco prod­ucts.

Still, Cal State Northridge in­fielder Wil­liam Colantono be­gan to dip as a young mem­ber of a mostly older var­sity high school team. “Be­ing around them, I picked it up,” he said. “Not that I’m proud of it.”

Colantono said that while most of his sum­mer league team­mates used smokeless tobacco, only “a hand­ful” of his Northridge team­mates do, and they par­take off the field.

“It’s easy for me not to have to do it on the field,” he said. “I’m not crazy about it where I have to have it all the time.”

Eshel­man, Fuller­ton’s ace right-han­der, started to dip in high school be­cause “I thought it was cool.” Fel­low Ti­tans pitcher John Gavin be­gan in high school on “a dare.” Both said they oc­ca­sion­ally use tobacco, but not on the field.

“Af­ter a game when you want to hang out and re­lax,” said Eshel­man, a ju­nior.

“Just kind of a stress re­liever,” said Gavin, a fresh­man.

Sev­eral col­lege base­ball sum­mer leagues, which have rosters com­prised of play­ers from across the United States, also ban the use of tobacco dur­ing games.

Sal Colan­gelo, long­time manager of the Bethesda (Md.) Big Train in the Cal Rip­ken Col­le­giate League, said he at­tempts to ed­u­cate play­ers, but for some “it’s a way of life.”

“You go into their trucks and there are cases and cases of tobacco and dip,” he said. “It’s like a 7-Eleven.”

Sev­eral coaches from West Coast schools ac­knowl­edged us­ing tobacco, though a few agreed to speak about it only if they­were not iden­ti­fied.

One, who­said he re­cently quit, re­called an um­pire once threat­en­ing to eject him for chew­ing when he went out to ar­gue a call. An­other, who has used smokeless tobacco for more than two decades, ad­mit­ted he was ad­dicted.

“For me, per­son­ally, that would be one of my great­est ac­com­plish­ments if I can stop,” he said.

For­mer Pep­per­dine Coach Steve Ro­driguez played on Pep­per­dine’s 1992 na­tional cham­pi­onship team and pro­fes­sion­ally for seven sea­sons, in­clud­ing 18 games in the ma­jors. He coached the Waves for 12 sea­sons be­fore be­ing hired last week as coach of Baylor. He said he chewed leaf tobacco un­til about five years ago.

“I was a hyp­ocrite be­cause I would say, ‘You can’t do it,’ but I would still do it,” he said, adding he is now pas­sion­ate about ed­u­cat­ing his play­ers about the risks.

“I want to make sure,” he said, “that I give them the best op­por­tu­nity to not have to deal with re­ally, re­ally big is­sues.”

Jeff Rober­son As­so­ci­ated Press

A CAN OF chew­ing tobacco is out­lined in the pocket of a St. Louis Car­di­nals player in 2011; ma­jor league play­ers are not pro­hib­ited from us­ing it on the field but col­lege play­ers are.

Chris Park As­so­ci­ated Press

TONY GWYNN be­lieved his chew­ing habit caused the can­cer that took his life at age 54.

Winslow Town­son As­so­ci­ated Press

CURT SCHILLING wrote an open let­ter to his younger self warn­ing of dip’s dan­gers.

Rick Madonik Toronto Star via Getty Images

TORONTO BLUE JAYS catcher Josh Thole spits while us­ing smokeless tobacco dur­ing spring train­ing.

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