Tony Gwynn's death and baseball's dirty habit

Eight-time batting champ who died June 16 at age 54 blamed his cancer of a salivary gland on his decades of chewing tobacco.
TNS Regional News
Jul 2, 2014

 

Bruce Bochy had his first taste of chewing tobacco at age 18. He thought he was doing something smart.

“We thought it was a safe alternative to smoking,” the San Francisco Giants manager said last week. “We didn’t realize how dangerous it was.”

Bochy spoke from the Giants dugout. A few hours later, he took the field to eulogize his friend, Tony Gwynn, during a somber pregame ceremony at AT&T Park.

Gwynn, the eight-time batting champion from the San Diego Padres, died June 16 at age 54.

The Hall of Famer blamed his cancer of a salivary gland on his decades of chewing tobacco, a claim not everyone supports. Even a consulting physician on Gwynn’s medical team said the parotid cancer that killed Gwynn is “not likely to be associated” with tobacco.

Still, Gwynn’s story was enough to rattle a culture in which chewing tobacco is as established as peanuts and Cracker Jack.

Two pitchers who had been coached by Gwynn at San Diego State have sworn off the stuff. Addison Reed of the Arizona Diamondbacks threw away seven cans from his locker and junked two more from his car before a game against the Giants on June 21.

Not long afterward, Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals told MLB.com he was quitting. “Bottom line,” he said, “I want to be around for my family.”

Bochy last week was asked whether Gwynn’s death would serve as a wake-up call for other tobacco users.

“I certainly hope so,” Bochy said. “I think if there is somebody who can make a difference, he certainly can.”

A THIRD OF PLAYERS USE

For every Reed and Strasburg, though, there are legions of ballplayers with no intention of quitting. Studies reveal that about one-third of all major league players use spit tobacco.

Though banned in the minor leagues, the substance is permitted in the majors by the collective bargaining agreement that extends through 2016.

In the meantime, MLB has tried to downplay its usage in the public eye. A’s catcher Stephen Vogt remembers “watching games as a kid, and back then it was way, way, way more rampant.

“I remember being a kid and putting my bubble gum in my lip and pretending to be a player. So it’s a cultural thing.”

He applauds baseball’s efforts to heighten awareness but doesn’t envision Gwynn’s death creating a culture change.

“I mean, we get talks about (tobacco dangers) all the time,” Vogt said. “It’s definitely something that’s talked about, and I know that it’s a big effort for baseball. But at the same time, it’s still going to be part of the game for a long time.”

Chewing tobacco and baseball have been linked for more than a century. A Newsday story last week recounted how chew was first brought to baseball by an influx of farm boys who had found that chewing, rather than smoking, was more conducive to completing their chores.

Only over time did the dangers become apparent. Spit tobacco users are four to seven times more likely to develop cancer of the oral cavity, according to Oral Health America.

‘NO CERTAINTY IN LIFE’

A’s outfielder Kyle Blanks came up in the Padres organization and spent some time around Gwynn. But Blanks, like Vogt, doesn’t subscribe to the theory that Gwynn’s death will serve as a wake-up call. He said players’ eyes have long been open to the choice they’re making. After all, tobacco is a legal product.

“There are warnings on anything that is bad for you. It’s always at any person’s risk,” Blanks said. “You get in a car, you’re taking a risk. You walk down a street in the city and you’re taking a risk. There’s no certainty in life.

“There are definitely things you can do to help have a great, healthy life, but at the same time it’s case-to-case. I watched a documentary about this guy who said he drank beer and smoked cigarettes all his life. He’s like 103 and runs marathons. There’s no formula for having just that incredible genetic makeup and being able to outlast.”

Three out of four people who use chewing tobacco have noncancerous or precancerous sores in their mouths, according to the American Cancer Society.

It was the appearance of such sores that spurred Bochy, 59, to quit, with the help of a hypnotherapist, in 2011, after nearly 30 years chewing.

At his most addicted, Bochy would chew before the game, in the first, fifth and eighth innings, and then again after the game.

“It’s such a tough habit, whether it’s smoking tobacco or doing the chewing or dipping,” Bochy said last week. “It’s one of the hardest habits to break. . . . I have two boys. I wouldn’t let them do it.”

Bochy’s progression—from experimentation to full addiction—is common for ballplayers, said Sue Schmitz, a spokeswoman for Oral Health America.

GARAGIOLA’S MESSAGE

OHA’s anti-tobacco program, NSTEP, is a descendant of the effort begun years ago by Joe Garagiola, the former big league catcher and broadcaster. Garagiola’s message, as he once explained to The New York Times, is that “with oral cancer, you die one piece at a time. They operate on your neck, they operate on your jaw, they operate on your throat.”

One of Garagiola’s tragic examples was onetime high school star Bob Leslie, who began chewing tobacco at age 14. In a documentary aimed at young players and still available on YouTube, Leslie wipes away tears as he tells Garagiola about looking at his wife and newborn baby before going to bed because “I don’t know how many times that’s going to be possible.”

Leslie was 31 when he died. He was also Jonny Gomes’ coach at Casa Grande High in Petaluma.

Gomes, now of the Boston Red Sox, was in town last weekend to face the A’s. Asked whether Leslie’s death left an impact, Gomes said:

“It’s a fine line. I’ve played with coaches who are in their 60s and 70s who have (chewed tobacco) their whole lives. Bob was in his 30s. Tony was 54. What you do and how much you do, is it irrelevant?”

Gomes said he “occasionally” chews tobacco. And he envisions it remaining part of the baseball culture, even in the wake of Gwynn’s death and other warnings.

Gomes pointed to a tattoo on his left arm that says, “In the Arena,” taken from a Theodore Roosevelt quote about the men “whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”

“You have to be in the arena,” the outfielder said. “This is how I explain it to people who have never played. What’s the biggest adrenaline rush you’ve ever felt in your life? Bungee jump. Sky dive. Birth of your child. Wedding night. You name it. What’s the biggest adrenaline rush, OK?

“And when that was over was your heart rate up? Or did you just go to bed? That’s every single night for us.

“People don’t realize that because they think it’s just a job. (Chewing tobacco) calms some guys down. It takes the edge off.”

‘HELPS PASS THE TIME’

A’s reliever Dan Otero said he doesn’t chew at all—not tobacco, not sunflower seeds, not even bubble gum. His aversion to tobacco started with the unofficial ban he faced way back in school in Coconut Grove, Fla.

“My mom told me that if she ever saw me on the field with a dip in she was going to drag me off the field,” he said.

But the right-hander has seen the way it starts. Baseball can be a game of standing around. Doing something—even spitting things—becomes part of the routine.

“Guys quit in the offseason. And then the season starts and they’re around it again. They’re standing around for an hour and a half shagging balls,” Otero said. “It just helps pass the time.”

Gwynn’s death, though, might result in a few new routines.

“I think it should alarm everybody,” Vogt said. “Obviously, anybody who chews tobacco knows it’s bad for them. We know what the risks are. And everybody just says, ‘I hope it’s not me.’ ”

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By Daniel Brown - San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

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