Is Chewing Tobacco Really a Performance-Enhancing Drug in Baseball?

Dirk Hayhurst@@TheGarfooseNational MLB ColumnistJune 30, 2014

Rick Osentoski/USA Today

A while back, Bob Klapisch of The Record of Bergen County (New Jersey) discussed smokeless tobacco in baseball on The Dan Patrick Show, making comments about how smokeless tobacco was, in fact, a type of performance-enhancing drug.

Did I, in my time as a player, ever see anyone get any kind of performance gain thanks to smokeless tobacco? Did I feel I was forced to compete against players who, in their bravery or ignorance, put a vicious blend of chemicals in their system to get an edge, thus challenging me to do the same or be left in the dust? Did a pinch of cherry Skoal make players any better? Was there a case to be made and, if so, could I make it because it would be a great story!

My first reaction: “Come on, we’re talking about dip here, not cocaine.”

Yes, I’ve seen players do cocaine. I knew players who kept little vials of "powder" in an Advil bottle. Unlike the old Nolan Ryan Advil commercials of the '90s, you pop a little of what’s in that bottle and you will be ready to go nine more innings.

I’ve seen players do speed and greenies and Winstrol and Adderall and pot and all manner of drugs in between. I’ve seen drug use to the point that when I think of the term “drug use,” I don’t even consider smokeless tobacco part of the statement.

The only instance of tobacco as a performance enhancement I can think of off the top of my head is when, while at a team party, one of the pitchers was smoking a cigarette, while he had a dip in, while eating a slice of pizza, while drinking a beer.

“What the hell are you doing with all that?” I asked.

“Cardio,” he said. “You know, making my heart work harder.”

While the argument that smokeless tobacco changes the natural chemical composition of the human body can be madeand that for some players it grants a calming, more level experiencemost of that calming, relaxing, focused nature is in relation to what would otherwise be a complete train wreck of withdrawal symptoms if the drug wasn’t present.

The performance gains caused by hits of dopamine, via nicotine, are hard to say. But if you mark smokeless tobacco as a performance-enhancing drug in the same way of steroids or speed, well, then you might as well get rid of energy drinks, beer and caffeine, too.

Don’t get me wrong: Smokeless tobacco is a horrible product. Horrible.

I’ve seen what it’s done to players. I watched them get bleeding sores on their mouths from abusing it and the shards of fiberglass rumored to be mixed inside. I’ve seen how irritable they get when they wake up in the morning and don’t have a dip to set them straight. I’ve even known guys that, if they don’t have a dip, can’t use the bathroom because their body is so dependent on the diuretic effect of the drugs they can’t drop anchor without it.

But to say that the addictive nature of the product, and the need it creates to keep consuming the product, somehow constitutes performance enhancement is a stretch. Smokeless tobacco should be banned from Major League Baseball, just not on the grounds that it’s helping some players get an edge over others. There is a difference between performance-enhancing drugs and performance-sustaining drugs—and that’s what smokeless tobacco is for most players.

The players that chew didn’t need to start chewing to make themselves better. Putting chew in their mouth adds nothing to their fastball or bat pop. In fact, I haven't known one player who, when they first tried the drug, didn’t get some kind of sick from it.

They only keep at it because of the peer pressure, or because of the social connotations of what consuming the product does for you—makes you look cool; makes you look like a ballplayer; real men do it; big leaguers do it. That’s why getting it out of the public eye at the major league level is so important, not because it’s giving the manager hocking patches of brown into the dugout corner some mental edge over his opponent.

I’d use just about any argument I could to get chew out of the public face of the game. I think it’s egregious that MLB forces its strictest smokeless tobacco policies on the minor league community, which, at present, endures randomized, clubhouse-invasion-style tests wherein if players are caught both they and their manager get fined.

That said, going down the road of, “Well, once you get addicted to it, it helps calm you down, and that’s an enhancement” is a slippery slope. If anything, you’d be better off arguing that getting smokeless tobacco out of the reach of players would be beneficial to keeping them away from possible performance liabilities, including withdrawal, irritability and sickness.

Also, consider that while smokeless tobacco is all the rage due to its association with the death of baseball legend Tony Gwynn, it’s not the most addictive or widely consumed drug in baseball. That title goes to caffeine.

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press/Associated Press

More players abuse caffeine than any other drug in baseball, hands down, no question about it, end of story. In 2011, when I was with the Durham Bulls, we all drank coffee and energy drinks, but one player seemed hell-bent on destroying his liver before his playing career was over.

He took five to six 5-Hour Energy drinks before a game on top of a giant-sized Monster Energy. He’d stack all that with Pain-Off, a drug found in the training room that mixed acetaminophen, ibuprofen and caffeine in a single dose. When he was all loaded up, he’d pace the locker room, fidget and contort uncontrollably. Watching him in the field was painful, all the neck rolls and twitches. You want to talk about making your heart work harder.

We took bets on whether he’d die of a heart attack before the year was out.

After a couple of months raiding the trainer’s supply of Pain-Off, the trainer cut our team tweaker off. They had a fight about it—the tweaker enraged that it was his career and that the trainer had zero right to prevent him from putting into his body what he felt he needed to play. The trainer maintained that his job was to protect the health of his players, and allowing the wanton consumption of his drug supply just for a caffeine fix was against team policy.

In the end, the tweaker asked me and various other teammates to always grab a packet or two of Pain-Off while in the training room and pass it on to him. “Come on, dude, be a good teammate and help me out,” he would say.

The amount of sugar and chemicals in energy drinks and supplements is often harder on your liver than similar servings of spirits. And, in the same way that you need more of what’s in smokeless tobacco to get the same effect, you definitely need more caffeine once you’ve developed a tolerance. But, worst of all, once you had that much legal stimulant in your system, you needed a depressant to bring you back down, and that brings us to the second-most-abused drug in pro sports: alcohol.

Once you’ve got that much caffeine in your system, it makes going to sleep after a game much harder. Most guys start drinking every night to help slow down after games. Just like caffeine, as the tolerance to the effect goes up, so does the rate of consumption to get the same effect. Soon, alcohol isn’t enough anymore and you need pills. That’s when players turn to yet another addictive performance-sustaining substance—prescription drugs, such as sleeping pills or opiate-based painkillers.

Vicki Smith/Associated Press

The worst part about all of these drugs isn’t their addictive nature. It’s that they are intrinsically linked to performance.

A player starts using any or all of these drugs because he believes they will wake him up, help him rest, make him more alert, or make him better look the part of a pro. From there, good results reinforce that the drug is working. When the player’s body starts to become accustomed to the drugs, it balances itself.

The addiction is no longer psychological but physical. For the player to maintain his new, altered state of level, he must have more of the drug, or, in this case, the product that serves as the drug’s delivery method, be it Red Bull, Skoal, Pain-Off or Ambien.

It’s not just professional baseball players who are using performance-sustaining drugs. More folks working longer hours keeping up with crazy lives are turning to something more than ever before.

In some ways, it makes more sense that baseball players get tweaked on caffeine or have a prescription to a sleeping aid. They do jobs that last for a very small amount of time that require a laser-like sense of focus to execute correctly. Failure can mean the end of a career and a dream.

But tobacco products are not the same. There is zero net health benefit from consuming them that cannot be found in—even if moderately so—a safer avenue. Even steroids, drugs that are universally seen as evil to the sport and banned, can be used to a positive effect under the right medical supervision.

There is no positive reason for why MLB players should continue to use smokeless tobacco in broad view of the world. Continuing to glorify consumption of a poison is morally and ethically wrong.

It’s just not cheating.

Which, sadly, is why the connection we have with baseball players and chew will never go away.


Dirk Hayhurst is a former pitcher who spent nearly a decade in professional baseball between MiLB and MLB. He is also an accomplished author and has appeared on Baseball America, ESPN, TBS' MLB postseason broadcasts, Sportsnet Canada and more.