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Chewing the splat about tobacco

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bad subject, says right-hander Mark Williamson, bad subject for a story.

Outfielder Jack Voigt seems to agree, the same Jack Voigt who will usually talk about anything, any time. He recoils from the NTC question about smokeless tobacco as he would from a rising inside fastball. So does right-hander Ben McDonald, another reliable clubhouse quote.

"I think I'm going to pass on this issue," McDonald says. "I don't want any publicity on tobacco. I get enough letters as it is."

This is baseball, 1994, a year into the sport's official war on Red Man, Copenhagen, Skoal, long past the era when a ballplayer was not a ballplayer without a wad in his cheek or a pinch under his lower lip. A far cry from the days when Boston Braves pitcher Johnny Sain would reply to reporter's questions by spitting tobacco juice in one direction or another -- straight down meant "yes," straight out, "no."

So goes baseball lore, and chewing, dipping, spitting have for some reason always been part of it.

The story goes that famed chawmeister Rocky Bridges, while coaching third base for a minor-league club in El Paso, Texas, once congratulated a player who had hit a home run by pressing a wet wad of chewing tobacco into his hand as the player rounded third. Then there was Philadelphia Phillies right-hander John Boozer, who flaunted his habit by spitting on the clubhouse ceiling and trying to catch the falling juice wad in his mouth.

There was a time when just about all players, coaches and managers chewed or dipped tobacco, a leisurely practice in a team sport that leads all others in idle time. Surveys published in the past three years have found that 40 to 50 percent of all major-leaguers use smokeless tobacco.

At least eight Orioles players dip or chew or both. For more than a year, the players have had to go out and buy their own supplies because the Orioles last June instructed home and visiting clubhouse managers to stop ordering tobacco for the players.

If professional baseball has its way, tobacco and all the rituals associated with it will eventually vanish from the sport. Last June, because of the risks of mouth cancers and dental problems, chewing tobacco and snuff were banned from all levels of the minor leagues, except in cases where a major-leaguer is sent to the minors. In Double-A and Triple-A, players and coaches caught using smokeless tobacco are subject to ejection from the day's game and fined $300. In Single-A, the penalty is ejection and a $100 fine.

In the big leagues, such a ban would have to be approved by the players because of their contract with Major League Baseball. That has not happened, and if comments from members of the Orioles are any measure of general player sentiment, it won't any time soon.

Minor-leaguers are "old enough to make their own decisions," says catcher Chris Hoiles, who has been dipping snuff since he was a high school senior. "Then again, it is bad for you to do it. It is life-threatening."

The tone of Hoiles' comments is typical of those members of the team who indulge in the habit. They make no apologies about it and resent the minor-league ban, but they do not want to be perceived as endorsing the practice.

"I don't want to see youngsters see me doing it, because it's a terrible habit," says catcher Jeff Tackett. "It can lead to cancer."

Tackett, 28, is a year-round snuff-dipper. That is, he uses the grainy tobacco sold in cans, taking a pinch and placing it next to the gum, usually under the lower lip. Snuff is not chewed, as is the compacted leaf tobacco sold in bags.

Tackett says he took his first tobacco chew at the baseball camp his father ran in California. As he recalls, he was 7 or 8 years old.

"I was with a bunch of the older guys. . . . I said, 'Let me try this stuff out.' I had this big wad in my mouth. My dad walked up and caught me with it."

That was the end of his tobacco chewing until he was about 14 years old and playing American Legion ball. Another baseball setting, another temptation. That time, though, he stayed with it.

"It just seemed like it was baseball to me," Tackett says.

Relief pitcher Alan Mills, who is 27, says he started dipping snuff about 10 years ago while playing baseball in high school in Florida.

"Somebody gave me a dip," says Mills, who like other dippers in the clubhouse keeps a soft-drink cup at his side as a spittoon. "I didn't like it, so I didn't dip anymore after that. I tried it again the next year."

And he has been dipping ever since.

"I don't get any sensation out of it. Now, I think it's more of a craving of nicotine," says Mills, who does not smoke.

Mills and his fellow reliever Mark Eichhorn say the bullpen is a breeding ground for time-killing rituals. When the Orioles are down a few runs, it has become bullpen practice to call for a "rally dip" of tobacco, says Mills. "As a reliever, I'm sitting around seven, eight innings doing nothing," says Eichhorn, 33, who says he started in rookie ball in Medicine Hat, Alberta, when he was 18. "It's a habit of boredom."

It's probably not a coincidence that virtually all the Orioles who indulge are either backup players, relief pitchers or starting pitchers, those who have the most idle time on their hands, the player-spectators of the game.

Fans at Camden Yards are not allowed to smoke in their seats, but there are no rules against chewing tobacco in the stands, says the team's public relations department. Sure enough, on Opening Day, one nicely tanned man seated to the left of home plate was spotted with a plug in his cheek, spitting discreetly into a Gatorade cup. It was former Royals batting champion George Brett, leaning forward and eyeing each pitch as if he were on deck, still chewing, still spitting.

In a baseball setting, says Hoiles, who has cut down his dipping and tried to quit, it's tough to kick the habit.

"It's hard. If you've done it, it seems like this is the atmosphere to do it."

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