Tobacco use still prominent among MLB players

Mark Townsend

Despite Major League Baseball's best efforts to dissuade and discourage players from using smokeless tobacco, it remains a difficult habit for many players to kick. In fact, the problem remained prominent enough in 2011 that U.S. senators and health officials urged MLB to ban smokeless tobacco to protect current players and future players who may pick up the habit while watching their heroes in action.

Though the league was unable to get a full ban on tobacco, teams are now prohibited from providing tobacco product to players as a part of the latest collective bargaining agreement with the Players Association. A good step, but it appears not much, or at least not enough, has changed in terms of usage.

Many players and coaches admit they still dip from time to time, mostly out of routine, which is part of what makes baseball players so unique. They're creatures of habit in the truest sense. Any nuance that helps them relax or in their minds leads to success on the field they'll keep with them. From something as simple as readjusting their batting gloves after every pitch, to a habit as dangerous as tobacco, they can't eliminate anything from their game that they perceive helps them.

Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe put the focus solely on Boston Red Sox players who use tobacco, including team leader David Ortiz, and found that to be true. Abraham says 21 of the 58 players he talked to admitted use, though they don't necessarily enjoy it and almost unanimously don't encourage it. It's just such a part of their routine that it became second nature. Almost like putting on their helmet and taking a practice swing in the on-deck circle.

“I use it as a stimulator when I go to hit,” Ortiz said. “But the minute I finish my at-bat I spit it out. It keeps me smooth and puts me in a good mood. I don’t do it in the offseason. I don’t really like it that much, to be honest with you.”

It's fascinating and maybe a little troubling to hear Ortiz put it in those words. Though it may not truly be an addiction for him and for others, the need to continue even in small doses will certainly add up.

After being diagnosed with cancer of the parotid salivary gland three years ago, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn immediately connected the diagnosis to his use of smokeless tobacco. The dangers are known and accepted, yet the habit runs so deep and comes in so many different forms, players put the risks out of their minds to gain short term piece of mind on the field.

For each player, the habit takes on different forms. Pitchers Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront said they use smokeless tobacco only when they’re on the mound. Fellow pitchers Andrew Miller and Clay Buchholz use it during games but not when they’re pitching.

“It’s just part of my routine when I play,” first baseman Mike Napoli said. “It would feel weird without it. I’ve gone a couple of months without it. But as soon as I step on a field, I feel like I need it.”

According to Abraham, many of the players he talked to have attempted to quit in the past but were unable to stay away. The only Red Sox player who doesn't plan on quitting during his career is Jonny Gomes. But even he understands the dangers and wants to live his post-baseball life tobacco free.

“I’d quit if my family wanted me to,” Gomes said. “The kids aren’t old enough to realize what’s going on. People are baffled I don’t do it in the offseason because I do it all the time when we’re playing. But I don’t have an addictive personality. There’s just something about it that goes with baseball. There’s something attached to hitting. I can’t describe it.

“Once I stop playing, I’ll never do it again. I know it’s a bad idea.”

If you went to every team around the league you'd hear the same stories over and over again. Guys who want to quit. Guys who don't need it off the field, but can't live without it on the field. Guys who know what they're risking, but would rather gain a slight advantage in their minds. It's troubling, but it's the nature of being a creature of habit, and the only true way to stop it will be doing everything we can to discourage and flat out stop young players before they ever get started.

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Mark Townsend is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at bigleaguestew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!