CALIFORNIA POLITICS
Capitol Journal

Chewing over a proposal to ban ballpark chaw

Major League Baseball strongly backs a bill that would ban chewing tobacco at parks across California

When a rookie legislator introduced a bill to ban big leaguers from chewing tobacco at ballparks, my immediate reaction was: How silly!

Assemblyman Tony Thurmond (D-Richmond), a former social worker, said he introduced the legislation because chomping on a wad of crud that can cause cancer and, besides, looks gross is bad role-modeling for ball-playing kids.

OK, no argument there.

Pegged to the start of spring training, Thurmond unveiled his bill, AB 768, last week at a popular amateur diamond near the state Capitol. It would prohibit the use of tobacco, including smokeless, at any California ball field during an organized baseball game. That would include any contest from scholastic to professional.

Cigarette smoking already is banned at every major league ballpark in America. So is tobacco chewing by minor leaguers. Thurmond's bill is aimed primarily at outlawing the unhealthy player habit at California's five major league parks.

But how would this be enforced?

Dugout raids? Cameras wouldn't work—"It was bubble gum, judge." Oral exams during timeouts? Testing players' spit?

Guaranteed: Ask voters for a list of top priorities for their tax dollars and snuffing out chaw would not make the cut.

Improving education, fixing roads, developing water, stimulating jobs, catching crooks? Yes.

And what would be the penalty? Presumably some fine. Say $50. But that's not going to deter any player in the show.

The minimum salary is $507,500. And hardly anyone makes that "little." The average pay this year is roughly $4 million. At the top, 28 make $20 million or more. Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw draws $30 million.

I asked Thurmond how his bill would be enforced. "A lot of details have to get played out," he said. "We're looking at changing behavior, not criminalizing anybody."

So I'm thinking this legislation would be a horribly thrown wild pitch — a total waste of law enforcement and judicial resources.

But then I did some digging and altered my skepticism.

Turns out Major League Baseball strongly backs the bill, even if it hasn't quite been saying that publicly. More important, it would enforce the law itself.

MLB has wanted to ban chewing tobacco for years — believing it soils the game's wholesome image — but has never been able to reach agreement with players in collective bargaining. All the players have agreed to do is not chew while being interviewed on TV and to keep tobacco tins out of their uniform pockets.

The bill — the first of its kind in the nation — would bypass collective bargaining and perhaps spread across the country.

MLB would enforce the chewing ban by forcing teams to obey the state law, said a high league source, who asked not to be identified because he didn't want to rile players. Ball clubs and players who ignored the law could be stiffly fined.

"It's a leverage issue for us," the baseball exec said. "It gives us more ammunition to go to the players to get this off the field."

A prepared statement by MLB stopped short of fully endorsing the bill.

"Major League Baseball has long supported a ban of smokeless tobacco," it said. "We ardently believe that children should not use or be exposed to smokeless tobacco, and we support the spirit of this [legislation] in California."

Spirit? Reads like "concept." Looks like a waffle. I asked MLB whether it endorses the actual bill.

This e-mail came back from Dan Halem, MLB chief legal officer: "Major League Baseball supports the efforts of the legislators in California to protect our nation's youth by eliminating smokeless tobacco products from all ballparks at every level in California."

Looks like an endorsement to me.

The Major League Baseball Players Assn. took no position. The union "discourages the use of smokeless tobacco products by its members," said Greg Bouris, a spokesman. "These products carry serious health risks." But then the key sentence: "The subject of their use is a collective bargaining issue."

The next contract negotiations will be in 2016.

There has been mixed reaction from players, including this one in the San Francisco Chronicle from Oakland A's pitcher A.J. Griffin, who used to chew but quit: The bill "doesn't make sense. It's not comparable to smoking. There's no secondhand smoke with chewing tobacco. It doesn't affect people around you.

"It just makes you look gross and makes girls not want to talk to you."

The poster player for banning smokeless tobacco is the late Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres, a Hall of Fame outfielder. "Mr. Padre" dipped tobacco his entire career. He died last year at 54 after a long fight with salivary gland cancer that he blamed on his chewing habit.

About 30% of big leaguers still use smokeless tobacco, MLB estimates.

The primary promoter for the Thurmond bill is the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Matt Myers, president of the organization, says "what's striking is that in the last 15 years we've seen more than a 30% decline in cigarette smoking among teenage boys, but a 33% increase in smokeless tobacco."

Roughly 535,000 teenagers bite off their first chaw each year, Myers says. A major cause, he asserts, is young ballplayers trying to emulate big leaguers.

OK, maybe the bill isn't silly. Pass it. But only if Major League Baseball agrees to enforce the ban at its stadiums.

Not one dime of California law enforcement money should be spent. Those funds should be reserved for catching real crooks.

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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