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Is baseball's tobacco ban up to snuff?

Somewhere, the man they call Dr. Chew is smiling today.

Since 1986, Dr. Greg Connolly has been campaigning diligently to snuff out tobacco use in baseball. At long last, his wait is over. Sort of.

Today, professional baseball's minor leagues are going smokeless. And chewless. And dipless. In short, a ballpark ban on the use of all tobacco products by players, managers, coaches, trainers, field personnel, umpires, even bat boys and girls.

The decree, announced earlier this month by Major League Baseball, affects more than 6,000 players and other personnel on the 212 teams that are members of the St. Petersburg-based National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues _ the minor leagues.

It's a move that just might change the face of baseball _ a game that dates its love affair with tobacco back to its earliest days, when players chewed to keep the dusty fields from drying out their mouths.

Not surprisingly, some players and managers don't like the ban. They see tobacco use as a right not to be surrendered for the good of the game.

Still, the ban is a reality, and happiest are the anti-tobacco forces who warn of the health hazards and decry the role model suggested by the bulging-cheeked, tobacco-spitting player.

"I've waited for this step for a long time," said Connolly, a dentist with the Massachusetts Department of Health, an adviser to the National Cancer Institute and Major League Baseball, and one of the leading anti-tobacco advocates. "We're finally seeing baseball get serious about this problem."

And the ban will have bite. Violators will feel the pinch in the form of fines ($300 per offense at the Double-A and Triple-A levels; $100 at Class A and below) and game ejections. Umpires will be the on-field monitors. Managers who violate the ban will be tossed from games. Players or coaches caught with tobacco will also be ejected, along with their manager. Neither clubhouses nor bus trips will provide sanctuary. Managers will monitor team travel.

All of which is a huge escalation of the anti-tobacco war that baseball started in earnest in 1991, when it banned smokeless tobacco at the Class-A and rookie-league level, imposing modest $25 fines for violators.

"We felt it was our obligation to take steps to try and break the link between tobacco and baseball," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, who is overseeing the policy change as Major League Baseball's director of minor-league operations.

"Tobacco is a health hazard, and it has created a terrible image problem for baseball. What we're trying to do is do the right thing. If it works, there'll be fewer players addicted to nicotine," said Solomon.

The dangers of smokeless tobacco are well documented. Regular use causes oral leukoplakia (loo-ko-play-kia), white keratotic patches that can lead to cancers in the head and neck region, which can be fatal. In a recent study, such patches were found in almost half (46 percent) of over 400 major- and minor-leaguers who chew or dip, and 69 percent of heavy snuff users.

To some, the minor-leagues' ban on tobacco is seen as a trial run for the major leagues. To others, the minors represented baseball's only low-risk, realistic anti-tobacco option.

In the majors, such a ban would be subject to approval by the players' union and could risk offending the tobacco industry, a longtime commercial supporter of baseball. Some team owners, however, have said they would like to recommend a tobacco ban as part of collective bargaining talks with the union next year.

There is no players' union in the minor leagues. In theory, if the ban works at the minor-league level, a whole new crop of tobacco-free players will someday reach the big leagues.

"I don't know Major League Baseball's strategy, but it's much easier to tackle the problem at the minor-league level, because it's the entryway to the major leagues," said Tracy Orleans, director of tobacco control research at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

"Our biggest problem is with the youngest players: 57 percent of college players use tobacco, 47 percent of minor-league players, and 35 percent of major-leaguers. So it makes sense that the way to address the problem is in the minors first, and then it will eventually show up at the major-league level."

Major League Players Association executive director Donald Fehr did not return repeated phone calls regarding the association's stance on the ban.

While acknowledging that the minor-league ban represents the path of least resistance for baseball, Solomon is hopeful the major-league players' union will see the anti-tobacco drive as a mainstream movement in America, and eventually fall in line.

"You can't smoke on airplanes, or in restaurants, or in offices these days," said Solomon. "This is not that different."

But policing baseball for tobacco use is different, critics say. For some, the habit is just short of an inalienable right.

"It (the ban) is going to be done, but I question the constitutionality of it," said St. Petersburg Cardinals manager Terry Kennedy, a former big-league catcher who has never regularly used tobacco. "It could be they're trying to solve a PR problem that they have by doing something down here. These guys don't have any representation at this level. They (baseball) have the hammer.

"I don't see it as a bad thing to try and get guys to stop. But I'm just wondering if this is the correct way to do it. Legislating it. I just wonder what would happen if a hot-shot prospect said, "Suspend me.' Then what?"

Dan Cholowsky is Kennedy's third baseman. He is 22 and looks even younger, but has dipped smokeless tobacco for at least two years. Despite the minor league's previous Class-A and rookie-league ban on snuff, he and other St. Petersburg Cardinals have found ways to discreetly partake both before and during games.

But at a $100 per pinch, Cholowsky's habit may have outpriced itself.

"I'm sure I'll be craving one out there every once in a while, but I won't try and sneak it," he said. "It's not worth it. But I still think it's an invasion of our privacy. Most of the players out here are of age where they can legally go down and buy smokeless tobacco. "Major League Baseball is having an image problem with the public, but the commissioner and the owners can't stop the big-league players, so they go after the little guys."

Classifying the minor-league's ban as "another example of political correctness gone awry," Tobacco Institute spokesman Bill Wordham cited the same logic as Cholowsky.

"The whole atmosphere today regarding non-smoking is somewhat overheated," said Wordham, whose organization is one of the tobacco industry's most powerful lobbys. "You're being denied a legal activity just because some people find it distasteful. It has been cited that ballplayers should set an example for minors. The example ballplayers should set for minors is to be the best they can be in their chosen sport and to behave like adults."

Shedding the negative role-model image is cited by baseball as another critical aim of the ban.

"Is a role model important?" Orleans asks. "They're very important. What kind of shoes is Michael Jordan wearing these days? It's an endorsement. Players use snuff, put the tin in their back pocket, and that's an endorsement of the product. It's the best way to sell something."

As a high school coach at Seminole High for more than two decades, Bill Brinker has seen the marriage of baseball and tobacco blossom in the lives of many of his players.

"I guess kids do it because they're stud No.

1," he said. "It's an ego trip for them. It makes them feel like they're tougher than they really are. I tell my kids not to. But it's a problem."

Perhaps no tobacco user in baseball is as recognizable as Don Zimmer. Now a coach for the expansion Colorado Rockies, he is known almost as much for the ever-present bulge in his cheek as he is for his on-field accomplishments as a player and manager.

"I think it's a nasty habit," said Zimmer, a resident of Treasure Island. "It just so happens I use it. When the season's over, I do without it. I hope no one ever does it because I do it. I'm not advocating it. But who's perfect in life? I know I'm not. I don't know how they can tell you you can't chew or dip. It'd be like telling me I can't wear shoes."