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Snuffed Out

The Giants wade into a post-tobacco world, cold turkey.

Madison Bumgarner, in friendlier spittin’ times (the 2014 World Series).

 

Three hours before the first pitch of a late-May home game against the San Diego Padres, Giants manager Bruce Bochy is walking up the dugout steps when he reaches into his back pocket. Out comes a brightly colored plastic package that he tears open. “TeaZa,” Bochy says in his gruff drawl as he pulls out the contents, an undersize tea bag filled with herbs and tea leaves. It’s meant to replicate the mouthfeel and salivary action of chewing tobacco. Bochy sticks the pouch between his bottom lip and his gums, waits a beat, and spits.

It’s a new sight in baseball—or, rather, an update on a very old one. Beginning this season, AT&T Park has gone completely tobacco-free, the result of legislation pushed by Supervisor Mark Farrell (a former college pitcher and Skoal aficionado) and signed into law in May 2015. The measure prohibits the use of smokeless tobacco by players and spectators at any city ball field, making San Francisco the first city in the country to outlaw a popular, if unhealthy, tool of the game. 

But midway through the first dipless season in major-league history, everyone involved seems to agree that the new order is at best a work in progress. Look no further, for instance, than the June broadcast of a game in which Giants ace Madison Bumgarner was shown on the bench with what sure looked like a dip in his mouth. As members of the Giants fraternity will tell you, quitting is easier said than done. “I can’t say I’ve stopped completely,” admits pitcher Jake Peavy, who reportedly started dipping in fifth grade. “But I’m respectful of not breaking the law of the city you’re in.” 

That nonadmission admission echoes the toothless enforcement of the law thus far. Fans or players caught chewing tobacco are theoretically subject to a $100 first-time fine—but as of late June, the SFPD had yet to cite even a single offender. And you can bet that Bumgarner, arguably the team’s best player, avoided punishment. Reaction to the ban inside the clubhouse is mixed, but tends to echo the view put forward on Breitbart that “fascism kills more people than a pound of Beech-Nut.” The Mercury News reported that, according to an anonymous survey it conducted this spring, only 3 out of 25 Giants players supported the new tobacco ban. (Incidentally, many of the team’s most flamboyant users of recent years are now gone: Tim Lincecum, who often punctuated a pitching outing by popping in a lipper; Pablo Sandoval, his tin bulging out of his pants pocket; even Juan Uribe, who famously dips his plug in honey and Kahlúa.) Inside the visitors’ clubhouse, several Padres players—who are also subject to San Francisco’s tobacco law when playing here—while away the hours before game time by playing cards and spitting tobacco juice into plastic water bottles. “There’s a lot of dead time,” Bochy offers when asked how tobacco became so entwined with baseball. League-wide, supposedly about one-third of players still use smokeless tobacco, down from an estimated one-half two decades ago. 

For Farrell, changing the optics is a bigger priority than punishing users. “We’re fooling ourselves if we don’t think our children are watching TV and trying to emulate their heroes, including their habits both good and bad,” he says. Perhaps kids aren’t watching baseball in this city; only around 3.3 percent were estimated to be dipping in a 2013 study, well under the national average of just below 15 percent among high school boys.

But, of course, the new optics present their own problem. Kids watching Bruce Bochy pack a tea bag in his lip have no way of knowing he’s not dipping tobacco. According to head trainer Dave Groeschner, the league provides teams with Nicorette for those who want it. Then there’s outfielder Hunter Pence’s latest oral fixation, coffee pouches manufactured by the Oakland-based company Grinds. Pence calls the pouches “awesome,” but warns that “you’ve got to stay hydrated” when you use them. “Drink lots of water.”

Laws like this city’s may soon go unenforced nationwide: Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, and New York have followed San Francisco’s lead and instituted similar bans. On December 1 of this year, California will outlaw dip at all of the state’s major-league stadiums, meaning a third of big-league parks will have bans in effect. 

There is, of course, a simpler, non-legislative solution to the sport’s dip problem—one as closely entwined with baseball culture as snuff or chaw. And for now, it’s the route Peavy is choosing. As he gathers up his bat and glove and heads toward the field for warm-ups, he reaches into a bucket set on a table in the middle of the clubhouse and grabs a fistful of addictively chewable Dubble Bubble.

 

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco 

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