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02/21/11 9:00 PM EST

MLB committed to educating on tobacco risks

Baseball is the national pastime. And those involved in the game must pass a lot of time.

That seems to be where the bizarre infatuation with smokeless tobacco arises.

Be it in training methods adopted, clubhouse games played, movie and music interests or off-the-field wardrobe, baseball players live in a bit of a copycat culture. It's bound to happen when a group of men are bound together for the better part of eight months each year.

Dipping is a part of that culture -- not just for some players, but also for some coaches, clubhouse staff and even front-office members.

"You get into baseball, and some guy chews, so you start doing it," one club representative told me. "Then you start another guy. It's kind of the culture. It's also a time-killer."

And there is plenty of time to be killed. In baseball, you're always waiting for something to happen. You're waiting for the game to start. You're waiting to hit. You're waiting for the call to the bullpen. You're waiting for the trainer to take off the ice wrap.

All this waiting. And at some point, somebody decided that waiting and dipping go hand-in-hand.

It's been an unfortunate and unsightly trend in the game ever since.

But as Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association near the next round of collective bargaining agreement talks, the smokeless tobacco trend is generating discussion. Two U.S. Senators -- Illinois' Dick Durbin and New Jersey's Frank Lautenberg, both Democrats -- are calling for an outright ban.

"We now know conclusively that smokeless tobacco endangers the health of baseball players who use it, but it also affects millions of young people who watch baseball," Durbin and Lautenberg wrote in a letter to Commissioner Bud Selig. "The use of smokeless tobacco by baseball players undermines the positive image of the sport and sends a dangerous message to young fans, who may be influenced by the players they look up to as role models."

The Senators cited a survey from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found use of smokeless tobacco products by high school boys has increased 36 percent since 2003.

While I'm not sure this is a matter deserving of congressional attention, given some of the more pressing issues in our nation and even in other professional sports, the point made by the Senators is irrefutable. And MLB has never tried to refute that point. At a congressional hearing on the topic last year, MLB executive vice president Rob Manfred called a smokeless tobacco ban a "laudable goal."

"It is banned in the Minor Leagues, a policy that we strive to reach with our Major League program," Manfred said last week. "We have been very aggressive in bringing the leading medical experts in for consultation and assistance. MLB remains committed to our efforts toward educating our players on the health risks associated with these products."

It's a goal that can only be reached in the CBA. The MLBPA must sign off on it, and there is growing reason, thankfully, to suspect it will. So we could very well be entering the final season in which smokeless tobacco use is so noticeably present in the game.

Unfortunately, not even a ban can completely change the culture. Smokeless tobacco has been banned in the Minor Leagues for nearly two decades, but anybody who has been around Minor Leaguers can tell you that plenty of these guys continue to dip.

Ultimately, you can't shame people into doing something they don't want to do or not doing something they want to do, provided that something is perfectly legal. In the end, it comes down to a personal choice by the players. A ban, while commendable and necessary, is just a Band-Aid.

It took the wake-up call that was Tony Gwynn's jaw cancer diagnosis to get Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg -- who played for Gwynn at San Diego State -- to try to stop dipping. It is not proven that Gwynn's cancer was, indeed, related to his longtime use of chew, but it's the end, not the means, that matters. A budding star is trying to kick an ugly habit, and that can only be good for him and good for the game.

"It's going to be hard," Strasburg told the Washington Post last month, "because it's something that's embedded in the game." So deeply embedded that a ban is just the beginning. It will take many more baseball people like Strasburg making a conscious, earnest and maybe even inspired effort to quit before smokeless tobacco is no longer a primary pastime in the national pastime.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.