From a public relations point of view--meaning the view from a typical American living or television room--baseball's major league players made a major league error last year when they voted to continue chewing tobacco.
Many TV fans keep saying that the things chewers do are the worst things about baseball.
But as an unfortunate situation, it doesn't have to last. The players can still change widespread impressions that they don't care what viewers think.
They can vote to:
* Allow veteran players to chew away, if they wish, until the day they die--which probably will be prematurely.
* Deny rookies and all other new young players permission to chew tobacco on any major league playing field.
Or in any dugout.
Or anywhere in sight.
That would assure a tobacco-free environment for the so-called national pastime at some point early in the 21st Century.
Is that too long to wait? Yes, but at least we'd know it's coming.
The way things are now, we don't.
And so, today, baseball is in an anomalous position. It is beginning to fight tobacco smokers--banning cigarettes in ballparks here and there--at a time when it is still encouraging smokeless tobacco.
And that hurts.
Recent studies show that although far fewer Americans chew than light up, those addicted either way are dying at about the same rate.
"The worst of it is that smokeless users are on the rise," health officer Suzi Gates said from Atlanta's Centers for Disease Control. "Last year, (smokeless tobacco-related) deaths were over 8,000."
The smokeless hold on baseball--a national scandal since the invention of television--is based on directives prohibiting players from smoking on the basepaths, or even while running after a fly ball.
Thus baseball's tobacco addicts can see no choice but to chew.
And there might be one good reason not to disrupt their filthy progress toward suicide: Until now, they've been behaving within the rules of baseball, it wouldn't be fair to change the rules in the middle of the game.
Lending some hope, chewing is now banned in the minor leagues. And, surely, there should be a day when major league fans no longer have to put up with it, either. If it's reasonable to grandfather the players and managers who learned to chew in a different world, the least we should expect of baseball and its players today is the promise of a better world.