I remember the first time that I watched The Sandlot. I was 8 years old, and over at a friend’s house when his dad popped it in the VCR after hearing that I’d never seen or heard of it.
I learned a lot of new stuff during my first run-through of The Sandlot. I gained a deeper love for the game of baseball, I discovered PF Flyer’s – and really wanted a pair for about a month, as I was a chubby, unathletic kid who figured that one pair of shoes could transform me – and I discovered what chewing tobacco was.
Unless you haven’t seen The Sandlot, then we all remember the scene when Grover pulls out a massive bag of ’Big Chief’ chewing tobacco at the carnival in celebration of their big win against those jerks that try and take their sandlot. “Big Chief?!” all the others exclaim excitedly, “It’s…the best.”
What comes next is the part that stuck with me.
When all the boys take a dip and then get onto some spinning ride and every last one of them vomits all over the place and gets off the ride holding their stomachs in pain.
While the scene is still hilarious to me, and one of my go-to quotes for just about anything, the part did stick with me and I remember asking myself, “why would I ever want to do something that would make me throw up like that and make me sick like that?”
To the common person, chewing tobacco might be a bit foreign, as your average Joe workingman might not be addicted to it. But in the culture of athletics, chewing tobacco is extremely prevalent and seemingly everywhere.
Take, for example Adrian Peterson.
Peterson has been, in his own words, “dipping for over 10 years”, and does so frequently during games and practices and whatnot. Now, why do I specifically bring up Peterson? Well, just last week he was nearly forced to be inactive for the Vikings game against the Lions due to a mysterious illness.
As we figured out on Friday of that week, Peterson’s mysterious illness was that he had accidentally – I’m assuming… – swallowed his mouthful of chew and it had made him violently ill and had caused him, much like we saw in that famous Sandlot scene, to throw up.
A professional athlete being paid $12.5 million almost missed a critical game because he swallowed his chewing tobacco. Is this not frustratingly fickle to anyone else?
When the media confronted Peterson about his tobacco incident, he scoffed at it, saying, “I’m surprised they (whoever broke the story) said that. I’ve been dipping for over 10 years; I would never let that happen.” Peterson said all of this with what SI writer Robert Klemko described as “a lip packed so robustly with tobacco, there was at least a half can in there.”
I’m really in no position to criticize Adrian Peterson’s life decisions, seeing as how he is likely much more successful than I will ever be. But what I am criticizing is the current culture of sports that subconsciously makes smokeless tobacco extremely prevalent and widespread.
When Tony Gwynn died of mouth cancer just last June, it was undoubtedly a sad day within not just the baseball family, but the entire sports family. But it was also a very important day as well.
While many mourned the loss of one of baseball’s greatest hitters and human beings, Gwynn’s cancer-induced passing – which he attributed to his habit of dipping smokeless tobacco over the course of his 20 year MLB career – reinforced the dangers and risks that chewing on leaves can cause. Later that afternoon, Diamondbacks closer Addison Reed talked to the media and said that Gwynn’s death had woken him up and made him throw out his stash of smokeless tobacco that was in his locker in an attempt to quit.
But Gwynn’s death is just part of a bigger, cultural issue. One that Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg knows all too well about.
Gwynn was Strasburg’s college coach at San Diego State University, and undoubtedly had a massive impact upon the Nationals’ ace. And, much like Reed, while mourning the death of his former college coach, Strasburg announced his intentions to kick his dipping habit.
Has he officially quit? I really have no idea, only he and his teammates and family probably know, and that’s really none of my business. But what I do know is Strasburg’s original reasoning behind getting into smokeless tobacco in the first place.
In a 2011 Washington Post article, Adam Kilgore profiled Strasburg’s “powerful addiction” to chewing tobacco and why he’s gotten into it by saying the following:
“Like any other high school kid, Stephen Strasburg wanted to emulate the major league baseball players he watched on television. He mimicked their actions down to the last detail. He rolled his pants up to reveal high socks, wore wristbands at the plate and, during downtime, opened tins of chewing tobacco and pinched some in his lower lip.”
Strasburg later admitted that he just wanted to be like all the guys he was watching on television, and that since they were chewing copious amounts of tobacco he figured he should too.
Without going too deeply into detail about all the types of cancer that can be contracted from dipping smokeless tobacco I just can’t emphasize enough how bad it is, and how erroneous the belief is that the rush of energy felt from the addictive nicotine aids performance. It doesn’t.
When testifying before Congress on the ills of smokeless tobacco, Harvard professor George Connolly described it as, “Simply nasty stuff…there’s no other way to look at it.
If you’re thinking, “Hey, Ryan’s trying to tell me how to live my life and what I should and shouldn’t do and that’s total hypocrisy” you are free to think that. But I’m not so much calling for everyone to quit smokeless tobacco – although that would actually be tremendous – so much as I am calling for major professional athletes to simply be more discrete about their use of it.
Instead of going out to the mound or the plate or the field – a la Jake Peavy, Chase Utley or Adrian Peterson – with a giant cheek or lip full of leaves, do your dipping in the dugout or the clubhouse or the locker room, where kids watching on television can’t see you and won’t want to mimic you.
Mark Reynolds used to be a self-prescribed, “heavy dipper”, but now has turned to sunflower seeds to give him the same sense of having a mouthful of food that he apparently needs to play. And being a sunflower seed eater myself, I can attest to that.
So the chewing tobacco that is so widely and copiously consumed by high level athletes everywhere doesn’t necessarily need to go, but the public and almost endorsing use of it needs to. More cases like Stephen Strasburg’s are not what the next generation needs and kids should not feel like they need to do drugs in order to emulate their favorite athletes. And on top of that, maybe we’ll stop hearing about “mysterious illnesses” that keep guys like Adrian Peterson from playing in important games.
As was the case with Big Chief, even if your smokeless tobacco is “…the best!” the health risks are just not worth it.
Thanks for reading…