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Red Sox manager Terry Francona was among the most visible users of smokeless tobacco.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona was among the most visible users of smokeless tobacco. (Jim Davis/ Globe Staff/ File 2004)

Team of destiny had a dirty habit

Study finds heavy use of chew by '04 Sox

The World Series, it turns out, isn't the only championship the Red Sox won in 2004.

In a study presented yesterday, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health reported that Sox players and coaches earned a more dubious crown: They chewed and spit more smokeless tobacco than either the St. Louis Cardinals, their vanquished rivals in 2004, or the teams in the 2005 World Series.

The researchers analyzed videotapes of the World Series to reach their conclusions, looking for telltale bulges in players' cheeks or the indecorous remains of smokeless tobacco drooling from their mouths. The study's conclusion: The Sox in Game 4 of the 2004 World Series were three times more likely to use the products than the Cardinals.

During a classroom presentation of the findings that featured researchers in baseball caps and a lunch of ballpark franks, the Harvard team implored Major League Baseball to consider banning smokeless tobacco, which has been linked to oral cancer, gum ailments, and nicotine dependence.

Gregory Connolly, the Harvard professor who oversaw the research of four graduate students, said a ban is imperative -- both for the health of players and for young fans, who might be tempted to emulate the tobacco use of their heroes on the diamond.

''We've seen data today from 2004 and 2005 that show children are heavily exposed to a cancer-causing agent from our best friends, the Red Sox," said Connolly, who is known globally for his battles with the smokeless tobacco industry. ''We've got to turn up the heat to get baseball to stop this."

In an interview, Red Sox co-owner John Henry said he had not seen the research but pledged to ''study the study." Henry acknowledged that there are legitimate worries about what's commonly known as ''spit" tobacco.

''Why?" Henry said. ''Because of the health concerns."

Long-term users increase their risk of mouth cancer four-fold -- the same as cigarette smoking, Connolly said.

For two decades, public health specialists have tracked the smokeless tobacco habits of baseball players.

The Harvard researchers conceded yesterday that there are limitations to their studies -- in this case, the research was based on just one World Series game each year and relied on TV coverage, which tends to train cameras on star players and coaches. Mehul Tejani, one of the master's degree candidates who conducted the study, said the researchers' objective was not to belittle any one team or player.

''Our concern was more about the free advertising potential of the players using this on screen," Tejani said. ''The exposure is really what we were trying to get at, not necessarily the prevalence of use."

The study documented 9 minutes and 11 seconds of perceptible use of smokeless tobacco during the 2004 game between the Sox and the Cardinals, which, the researchers found, amounted to $6.4 million in free advertising.

Among the significant users: Terry Francona, the Sox manager.

Francona was not available for interviews yesterday, but a year ago a friend of his was quoted in media reports as saying that Francona had stopped dipping tobacco.

The Harvard study marks the latest salvo in the campaign to banish smokeless tobacco from sports. Tobacco chew once was considered as integral to baseball as hot dogs and peanuts.

But the product is now banned from college and minor league baseball.

Joe Garagiola, the former major league catcher and television analyst, has led the charge to eliminate tobacco from professional baseball, championing an effort called the National Spit Tobacco Education Program that encourages players to forgo the practice.

''I chewed tobacco when I started the game -- I thought it was part of the game," Garagiola said yesterday during the Harvard presentation, speaking by telephone from his home in Arizona. ''It's a deadly, addictive habit."

A spokesman for Major League Baseball, Mike Teevan, said the league cannot unilaterally prohibit smokeless tobacco because such action would be subject to collective bargaining with the players' union.

''But the hope is that by banning it at the ground floor, at the minors, that players will avoid using it as they work their way up to the majors," Teevan said.

An earlier study of professional players found that 78 percent of those who indulged in smokeless tobacco used it to have ''something to do."

''Why do people do it in spite of all the health risks?" asked Amber Johnson, one of the authors of the Harvard report. ''Boredom is a big reason. Baseball can be a little slow."

Some players also believe -- contrary to all research -- that chewing tobacco will enhance performance on the field.

In a 2004 interview with The Boston Globe, Sox pitching ace Curt Schilling lamented the lure of smokeless tobacco for players and described his repeated efforts to quit as ''the hardest thing I've ever tried to do."

''It's a horrible, disgusting, dirty habit," the pitcher said.

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.

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