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It's baseball all-star (spitting) time

Nick Markakis #21 of the Baltimore Orioles takes a dip of snuff before the start of the Orioles and Boston Red Sox game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on July 18, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Alex Rodriguez #13 of the New York Yankees spits during the game against the Washington Nationals on June 18, 2009 at Yankee Stadium.

On Tuesday night, Major League Baseball continues a tradition going back 80 years with its annual All-Star Game. If you watch the players’ mouths, you could catch a glimpse of another, changing tradition: spitting.

Take New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi. As his team gave up run after run to the Minnesota Twins in the last game before the All-Star break, he constantly spat -- sunflower seeds. For decades, until recently, that spit would have been full of tobacco juice.

I remember as a kid going in the Yankee dug-out, back in the old days, it was all over,” says Al Cicerone, a long-time Yankees fan. He recalled stepping in the saliva slime.

In addition to producing a buzz and the risk of cancer, moist smokeless tobacco -- chewing tobacco or dip stuffed under the lower lip -- causes constant spitting. Awareness of health effects and successful efforts by anti-tobacco advocates to ban smokeless tobacco in college and minor league ball have reduced use over time.

But an estimated one in three professional baseball players still chew or dip. Last year, Major League Baseball required players to conceal their use while around fans, curbing free advertising for tobacco companies.

“I would say that’s true, that we reduced [free advertising]”, says Greg Connolly, director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control. “But have we moved from jumping from the 20th floor to jumping from the 10th floor?”

Players who use tobacco still set an example for young people, among whom smokeless tobacco use is rising, according to Connolly’s research .

Big tobacco companies have been looking to make up for falling cigarette sales in the U.S. with smokeless products, which are growing.

“If you look at the stock prices, it’s certainly working,” says Jeffries analyst Thilo Wrede.

He points to innovations like new smokeless tobacco offerings, such as pouches and fruit flavors, which critics say appeal to the young.

“The latest innovation has been Snus,” Wrede says.

Snus is a spitless version of dip, originally from Sweden, where it has long been popular. Now Swedish Match is marketing Snus in the U.S., as are domestic giants R.J. Reynolds and Altria, under the Camel and Marlboro brands, respectively.

“It comes in a little pouch, you don’t need to spit to use it, and because you don’t have to spit, it’s seen as much more user-friendly,” says Wrede.

That depends on the user.

At an amateur baseball game in Central Park, Anthony Perez has mint-flavored dip in his mouth. He had tried Snus, but once was enough.

The whole point is you don’t have to spit out, you can just swallow it, but that’s… coming from someone who dips, to me that’s a little disgusting,” he says. “I know it sounds weird, but it’s not the same thing.”

Spitting -- whether it's tobacco or sunflower seeds -- is a baseball tradition that's here to stay.

About the author

Stan Alcorn is a multimedia journalist in New York City. He has reported for NPR and WNYC, where he has focused on business and the New York tech scene.

Alex Rodriguez #13 of the New York Yankees spits during the game against the Washington Nationals on June 18, 2009 at Yankee Stadium.

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