Balk!

Brace yourselves. I’m about to do something dangerous. It’s OK, though, I’m a professional. Kids, don’t try this at home.

The annual return of professional baseball, like the annual return of the swallows to Capistrano, is almost here. Players have reported to Spring Training. They take the field for exhibition games next week. The swallows take the field (and the fences and the eaves) March 19. And the season–real, meaningful games–begin April 5.

If we were able to smell the Cracker Jack last month, today we’ve got the box open and our greedy hands are shoved inside, searching for the little paper packet that holds the toy.

Ouch! Damn, stretched the metaphor too far and it snapped. “Careful with that metaphor, Junior. You could put somebody’s eye out!”

Oh, well. Professional clowns making balloon animals break a few too.

Actually, let me amend something I said before tattered bits of tortured language flew past our ears. It’s traditional to decry Spring Training games as meaningless. They have no effect on the standings. How well a team performs tells you nothing about how they’ll do in the regular season. How individual players perform has a slight negative correlation to how they’ll do once the games count.

Doesn’t matter. The games are still far from meaningless where it counts: in the hearts of the fans. Not just because they’re “Baseball! Damn it!”–the first games of the year for those of us who don’t follow the college game–but because they’re when the hope really begins. We’ve talked about this before: Spring Training is when we start to see whether our team’s off-season moves are going to pay off. Somewhere in the mass of minor league prospects and newly-acquired free agents is the guy who’s going to lead the team to the World Series, right? Now’s when we get to start figuring out who he is.

Now is also when we get to start arguing about the latest attempts to destroy the integrity of the game. Last year it was expanded replay and anti-collision rules (including the late, unlamented transfer rule). This year it’s all about the length of games and chewing tobacco.

What?

I’m not too concerned about the rule changes intended to speed up games. Limiting the time between innings, the time allowed for pitching changes, and requiring batters to keep one foot in the box isn’t going to change game play significantly. But this smokeless tobacco thing bothers me.

Let’s be fair to MLB. They’ve been working to reduce the use of snoose for years. Spitting is an unpleasant, moderately disgusting sight. And the latest proposal isn’t coming from MLB; it’s straight out of San Francisco. That said, while the league didn’t come up with the idea, they have endorsed it.

San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell has introduced a measure that would ban smokeless tobacco at every baseball field in the city, including the Giants’ AT&T Park. Apparently the idea is popular: Richmond Assemblyman Tony Thurmond is pushing a similar ban at the state level.

It’s being promoted as a health issue, and as the death of Tony Gwynn highlighted last year, it’s a significant issue for baseball. Fair enough. But then, why limit the ban to baseball parks? Simple: backers admit that chewing tobacco doesn’t affect others in the way secondhand smoke does. That makes a general ban on its use in public similar to bans on public smoking politically impractical. Instead, the baseball ban is being positioned as a way to reduce the influence of children’s role models. If kids don’t see their idols chewing tobacco, they won’t chew it either.

OK, maybe so. Certainly baseball players are among the most visible users. But if it’s true that MLB is losing younger fans because games are too long (their stated reason for the speed-up rules), how much influence do players have on those young enough to be influenced?

Wait, the whole contretemps gets even less logical: MLB can’t directly ban chewing because that would violate the collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union. And, apparently the players union is above the law; for reasons that no article I’ve seen has explained, a legal ban in San Francisco–or California–wouldn’t apply to the players. In order to get the ban passed, Supervisor Farrell has said he would consider exempting AT&T Park from the ban.

Right. The primary purpose of the ban is to reduce the influence of major league players on children, but it might not apply to those same major league players.

No wonder people across the country laugh at the antics of San Francisco’s lawmakers.

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