By Ernie Palladino
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Sometimes it's good to change the culture of a sport, if only to save a life or two.
There's nothing complicated about it. We've seen football alter its collective behavior throughout the generations, and it's still changing. The shape and material used in the helmets have evolved since the days when a thin piece of leather served as head protection.
Training camp -- once the ultimate test of manhood -- has gone from a nearly two-month torture chamber of two-a-days where coaches all but doled out water with an eye-dropper to a well-hydrated, single-practice month of tuneup before the regular season. Concussions are no longer thought of as goofy little mishaps that are forgotten once the cobwebs clear -- or don't -- to serious occurrences that can shelve a player for a game, two games or more.
Hockey has seen the mandatory use of helmets, and baseball has ordered even its first- and third-base coaches to wear head protection.
Now, perhaps it is time for Major League Baseball to take another evolutionary step, an advancement that would influence every kid who dreams about becoming the next great thing.
It's time to ban chewing tobacco.
Before anyone starts railing about the "sissyfying" of the game, let's remember that the minors banned tobacco of all kinds from the field and dugouts as far back as 1993. The absence of Red Man from the cheeks of those players hasn't seemed to affect their performance, as the personnel faucet continues to flow from that primary talent reservoir.
Still, it is not uncommon to see some players go back to the chaw as soon as they escape the minor-league restrictions. Somehow, it's supposed to be cool to mimic a bunch of grizzled old-timers who didn't know better. The camera catches them on the bench, spitting their ugly brown streams into paper Gatorade cups originally intended for hydration. The fans see the occasional hocking of a lip full of snuff on the field. It's not only gross, but it can infuriate the grounds crew that has to rub those nasty tobacco juice stains out of artificial turf.
But this is about health, not aesthetics or cleaning bills or tradition. We're talking about tobacco, after all, and that can kill as effectively through mastication as it can inhalation. Tony Gwynn, the legendary San Diego Padres Hall of Famer, died Monday at age 54 because of mouth cancer caused by his addiction to chewing tobacco.
Others like Bill Tuttle -- the old Tigers utility infielder of the 1950s -- tried to spread the same message years ago, and MLB has brought a parade of others to lecture on the dangers of chewing tobacco. But who listens to a bunch of old players without jawbones, tongues, teeth or cheeks?
They start as kids. Back in the 1970s, it was nothing to see a high-school coach reach into his back pocket and offer a 17-year-old a chaw. It became a right of passage for many, just part of the journey from teenager to man.
Those coaches were as wrong for that as they were for lighting up in the third-base coaching box. Gwynn was just the latest to prove it.
It would take nothing for MLB to ban the chaw. The league has already forbidden players from chewing in postgame interviews. Just extend it to the field. If they want to chomp their extra energy away, let them fill their mouths with gum. Fill the cabinets with it until they overflow. Help these multimillion-dollar investments protect their futures by stopping their tobacco usage now.
It's too late for the best pure hitter of our generation. But with a little change in culture, MLB could save others.
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