A way to truly honor Bob Leslie's legacy
Published: Sunday, May 29, 2011 at 8:55 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 29, 2011 at 8:55 a.m.
Recently, at an undisclosed Sebastopol gym where a group of “legends” (the older we get, the better we were) plays pick-up basketball, a discussion broke out about that other basketball league, the NBA. With the playoffs under way, we recalled the great Boston Celtics teams under coach Red Auerbach. Auerbach's routine was to light up a cigar in an already smoke-filled gym when a Celtic win was imminent.
It was also a time when baseball players such as Mantle, Musial, DiMaggio (a heavy smoker) and Robinson promoted cigarettes, whether they smoked or not. Much has changed since then, beginning with the true understanding of tobacco's harmful effects. To think that any sports team today would allow smoking in an arena, let alone outdoor ballparks, is unimaginable.
However, Major League Baseball is the only sport that condones the use of tobacco on the playing field (although it is prohibited at all minor league levels). And for all the things the Giants organization has done well on and off the field these past months, it seems to be the “poster child” for tobacco use. This begins with the manager and includes some of the key players most admired by young fans.
Once upon a time, one of those young fans was Bobby Leslie. He was a terrific athlete, the embodiment of a healthy, active youth. This image was true through his teen years, even as he first started using spit tobacco at age 13. But, what the heck, that's what ballplayers seemed to use and, much like mimicking a star player's batting stance, the youthful Leslie — along with others quick to emulate their heroes — picked up a smokeless tobacco habit. That continued until he was diagnosed with oral cancer at age 27. The following years were filled with a series of painful surgeries to stem the raging disease.
Shortly after the diagnosis, Leslie — by then a highly successful baseball coach at Petaluma's Casa Grande High School — joined with former major leaguer Joe Garagiola and Major League Baseball to educate youth on the harmful effects of spit tobacco. Garagiola, better known nationally for his humor and colorful commentaries, took on this business because of the painful deaths some of his former teammates suffered due to spit tobacco.
My son, then a high school sophomore, was one of those selected to attend the Leslie-Garagiola workshops in the Bay Area in 1996. For that year and the following two seasons, my son also played against Leslie's teams, the ultimate high school baseball challenge in Sonoma County. And in 1998, Casa Grande outperformed all its previous successes, winning the North Coast Section title (as far as a team could go during that time).
Leslie was honored as California's 1998 California Coach of the Year. He was also picked as The Press Democrat All-Empire Coach of the Year (somewhat ironically, my son was pictured next to him in the All-Empire photos).
The Press Democrat tribute stated, “Leslie miraculously made it through Casa Grande's best-ever season before losing his bout with cancer.” Bob Leslie was just 32. It was hard to see how this could be considered a miraculous event. But, actually, there was another one: He had survived long enough to see the birth of his daughter during this time, at Santa Rosa Memorial.
Probably the last photo of Leslie showed him with his new-born daughter on his chest at the hospital. Most of this story is captured in a poignant, powerful short film titled “A Tragic Choice — The Bob Leslie story.”
It should be a must-see for youngsters who love the game of baseball.
Thirteen years after his passing, Leslie should be remembered for his successes in life as well as the tragedy of his death. At the same time, it would be a good thing for Major League Baseball and the Giants to remember this story, too.
Baseball has congratulated itself on moving past the steroids era. However, it still has a ways to go to address this equally troubling part of its image: the use of a stimulant known to cause death.
Mike Carey is a retired Sonoma County schools superintendent, and author of the novel “Heading for home: A baseball odyssey.” He lives in Sebastopol.
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