I'd never smoked a cigarette or marijuana. I rarely even had a beer. It was 1973 and, for whatever reason, I wasn't one of those high school kids who chasing the next little buzz or that elusive high.
Plus, baseball players caught smoking or drinking at our school got kicked off the team back then. No questions. No appeals.
There wasn't a rule banning chewing tobacco. My mom made my rules, however, and chewing tobacco would have violated one of them. I knew big leaguers dipped and chewed, but I figured they did lots of things that would get me in trouble if I tried them.
Then, one early evening during a high school game, a guy pulled out a bag of Red Man loose leaf tobacco. I didn't know what it was supposed to do for a guy, but I was nervous and struggling at the plate and ... I took some and stuffed it in my cheek.
The 'Tobacco High'
The head rush that followed should've alerted me to power of the tobacco, as well as to my inherently addictive nature. My head was spinning. My body tingled. I felt so relaxed. I was actually high...in the dugout. I knew nothing about poisonous chemicals in the tobacco. And, if I had, I'd have probably kept the chew in anyway. It made me good.
Nobody could tell I was chewing -- even when I was playing third base.
My buddy took some loose leaf, too. He swallowed some chemical-laced saliva and spit the wad out quickly. As I threw the ball across the diamond between innings, our shortstop was bent over facing the outfield and vomiting.
One of us went on to chew tobacco for years. The other one never tried chewing tobacco again. Neither of us gave a second thought to whether our favorite big leaguers chewed. We didn't try it because the guys on baseball cards used it. We tried it when we decided to try it. I got hooked. My friend got sick.
Not much after that, I took my first dip of Copenhagen. That granulated tobacco in a tin canister wasn't nearly as palatable as the Red Man that had a distinctive flavor. Seconds after my first dip of Copenhagen, I said, "This stuff is terrible!" Then, I had to sit down next to the batting practice cage because my head was spinning. The buzz I got from loose leaf was nothing compared to what I felt after the dip of Copenhagen.
At that point, I didn't even know big leaguers chewed granular tobacco.
Kids See Lincecum, Jeter Chew
So, really, I don't think Congress has any good reason to try to impose a ban on chewing tobacco in Major League Baseball. The legislators ignore real world problems in the name of saving kids from following their heroes who chew?
Ridiculous! They're wasting their time and our tax dollars.
I chewed into my 40s. I chewed around my own kids. I chewed when I coached youth sports. Fortunately, I was able to tell my kids and others that I didn't chew tobacco because it still gave me a buzz. When they saw me chew, I told them my story -- starting with the first time I got the incredible buzz to the point I was in my 40s where I just used Copenhagen because I was addicted and poisioning myself a little bit at a time.
So, when my 14-year-old son sees San Francisco Giants star Tim Lincecum with a dip in his lip on the bench, he doesn't think, "Boy, maybe if I chew, then I'll win two Cy Young Awards someday, too."
My son's one of those elite-level baseball players who blasted right by Little League to play and pitch in tournaments all over the state and country. So, he'd be the kid Congress is aiming to protect. The boy's climbed far up the pyramid of baseball success and would, in theory, be looking for any edge.
He knows that Lincecum's an adult who is choosing, just like I did, to use tobacco. My son's quite aware that Lincecum might wind up a 40'something guy walking around with a cup to spit in, hating that he's addicted to chew but unable to stop chewing. He's also aware that Lincecum and his buddies are chewing something that could kill them.
My son can't be the only kid who loves Giants' slugger Pablo Sandoval and, yet, has never mentioned a single word about the gigantic chew of loose leaf he stores in his cheek when he bats. My son and his teammates don't dream of the day they can load big, juicy, Sandoval-sized chew -- because they know the health risks and that being a great hitter doesn't necessarily make a guy smart enough to avoid ingesting life-threatening chemicals.
Kids can separate Sandoval the baseball stud from Sandoval that tobacco-chewing adult who chooses to put his health at risk.
When my pals and I were growing up, there were still athletes and even some doctors, who claimed tobacco made them more alert in competition. My son and his friends have seen the photos of former ballplayers who lost their jaw to cancer caused by chewing tobacco and know better.
Parents, Others Responsible For Kids
Major League Baseball could put together an advertising campaign warning against the use of chewing tobacco. Find a star or two who don't chew, have them admit that lots of guys do chew, but state flatly that it's unhealthy and could lead to addiction or worse.
We don't really need Congress to impose a ban on chewing tobacco in the big leagues. Seven out of 10 guys chewed in 1973, but my friend who played shortstop chewed because we wanted to try it.
Kids are going to do what kids are going to do. And, beyond protecting kids from the actions of their favorite players, what good will a ban on big leaguers chewing do us?
Congress could ban tobacco in the big leagues, but it can't make me throw out thousands of old baseball cards my kid can look at that show the greats of the game chewing. It can't remove from kids that desire to try something different, to break a rule, etc.
It's my job to enlighten my sons. When my older kids played in high school and college baseball, coaches allowed their teammates to chew. My kids didn't partake for fear of winding up with a spit cup in their hand at work at age 40.
Talk to Kids About All Drugs
Lincecum's my youngest son's favorite pitcher and our entire family cheers for the Giants. Lincecum got busted with marijuana in his car this past winter. He paid his fine, took responsibility and acknowledged he should know better than to get caught with pot in his car.
Legendary congressional grandstander Henry Waxman, however, is worried that star players who chew tobacco are putting impressionable kids at risk? I'll bet my 12-year-old daughter knows more about marijuana and what it does and doesn't do to users than Waxman does.
Congressional leaders have no idea about the world modern kids live in. Leave baseball and our kids alone and fight world hunger or try to stop a war.
Ted Sillanpaa is a San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area sports writer and columnist. He stopped chewing tobacco with the help of medication in his 40s. Ted can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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