WASHINGTON (AP) — After hounding Major League Baseball and its players union over steroids, Congress now wants the sport to ban smokeless tobacco. “Good luck,” San Francisco Giants reliever Brandon Medders said. “Guys do what they do. We work outside. It’s been part of the game for 100 years.”
At a hearing Wednesday, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, and Health Subcommittee chairman Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, called on baseball and its players to agree to bar major leaguers from using chew, dip or similar products during games.
MLB executive VP Robert Manfred and MLB Players Association chief labor counsel David Prouty told lawmakers they agree that smokeless tobacco is harmful — Manfred said a ban in the majors is “a laudable goal” — but both pointed out that any ban would have to be agreed to through collective bargaining.
They said their sides are willing to discuss the topic during future negotiations; baseball’s labor contract is due to expire in December 2011.
“I can tell you, anecdotally, there are plenty of players who are against it, who think, ‘Of course it should be banned.’ There are plenty of players who use it. Do they think it should be banned? I don’t know,” the union’s Prouty said in an interview after the 3½-hour hearing.
“We can go back to the players and say, ‘Congress feels strongly about this. You ought to think about it. Look what’s happened on other issues Congress felt strongly about,'” Prouty said.
Smoking cigarettes while in uniform and in view of the public is not allowed in the majors. Smokeless tobacco has been banned in the minors since 1993 but is allowed in the majors, and players and managers often can be seen using products during games or carrying a tin of dip in a back pocket.
“For them to pull it off in the minors really surprised me,” Twins reliever Pat Neshek said after Minnesota played the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday. “We’ll see if that gains much traction.”
Neshek, who said he’s never tried smokeless tobacco but considers the notion of a ban “ridiculous,” remembers players in the minors skirting the rules.
“People would still do it,” he said. “I don’t know if they’d mix it in with their gum or something like that.”
At the hearing earlier Wednesday, Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, wondered aloud: “Why don’t they just chew gum if they feel the need to chew something?”
During his opening statement, Waxman said: “We don’t let baseball players go stand out there in the field and drink beer. Major League Baseball won’t allow them to step on the field and smoke cigarettes. So why should they be out there on the field — in sight of all their fans on television and at the ballpark — using smokeless tobacco?”
Waxman was one of the leaders of the House Government Reform Committee when it held a series of hearings on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball with witnesses such as Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro and Roger Clemens in the same Rayburn House Office building used for Wednesday’s session.
There were no current baseball players in attendance Wednesday, but former major leaguer and longtime anti-tobacco advocate Joe Garagiola testified, speaking for about 15 minutes, instead of the allotted five.
“I would like the players … who are role models; I don’t care what anybody says … to quit carrying a can of dip in their uniform pockets,” Garagiola said.
“Why can’t baseball and the players association right here get together and ban it? Take it off the field,” Garagiola said. “Tobacco is tobacco is tobacco. … Get it out of our game.”
Terry Pechacek of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Deborah Winn of the National Cancer Institute testified about the links between smokeless tobacco and cancer, and the addictiveness of smokeless tobacco. Pechacek said smokeless tobacco can cause oral cancer, pancreatic cancer and has been linked to fatal heart attacks.
Harvard professor Gregory Connolly said research shows about one-third of major leaguers report they use smokeless tobacco, and he says that contributes to use by youth in America.
Asked about the topic after playing against the New York Yankees on Wednesday, Los Angeles Angels outfielder Torii Hunter wasn’t sure whether it’s fair to blame ballplayers for kids using smokeless tobacco.
“Anything healthy is always good, but I wouldn’t put it on us. You know, there’s grandparents that do that, that dip and all that stuff,” Hunter said. “It’s probably right there in your home.”
Hunter said he doesn’t use dip and has tried to persuade other players to stop.
“I can see they don’t want kids to do it, which is good,” Medders said before San Francisco hosted Pittsburgh on Wednesday. He also called the idea that smokeless tobacco, which he uses, could be banned, “just stupid.”
Giants manager Bruce Bochy is trying to quit his longtime smokeless tobacco habit, and he stops during each offseason. He’s down to about two dips a day; he says the tobacco makes him sharper in his decision-making during games.
“I’ve dramatically cut back. I feel a lot better,” Bochy said. “It’s not as prevalent in the game as it used to be, which is a good thing. We know it’s not good for you, and I’m guilty. We are role models. Believe me, I made sure my two boys don’t do it. I don’t know if it should take an act of Congress to do it. Starting in the minor leagues, we’ve done a pretty good job.”
AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley in San Francisco, and AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell in Minneapolis and Mike Fitzpatrick in New York contributed to this report.