Tony Gwynn discussing his selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame during a 2007 ceremony in his adopted San Diego.
I was a junior at Columbia the first time I tried chewing tobacco. I was about to pitch against Penn when a teammate offered me a chaw of Red Man. It was almost the size of his fist.
“This stuff is awesome,” he said as I stuffed the clump into my cheek. He was right: the combination of aroma and chemicals went right to my brain, sharpening my focus while it simultaneously calmed me down.
That bizarre contradiction only makes sense to those who chew or use smokeless tobacco, more commonly known as dip. It’s the unspoken tragedy behind Tony Gwynn’s death on Monday, the story of a superstar whose life ended too soon because of his addiction.
Gwynn was diagnosed with cancer in his salivary gland in 2010. There are plenty of tributes being beautifully written about Gwynn’s super-human hitting skills – he batted .338 and struck out only 434 times in 10,232 plate appearances – but his life and career cannot be separated from his tragic passing.
Gwynn was only 54, too young to die. But he learned too late that chewing and dipping would eventually kill him. Such a loss makes you rage at the sky and ask how Gwynn, a genius in the batter’s box, could’ve been so dumb as to use tobacco throughout his adult life.
I ask only because I know the answer: I kept chewing after that seminal moment in my Ivy League career, right through my 20s as I played for the Hackensack Troasts in the Metropolitan League. I was just an amateur, but no less addicted to the rush. It was a disgusting habit – spitting the juice left brown pools near my teammates’ feet in the dugout – but I felt I couldn’t pitch without it.
It took years for me to quit, which made me one of the lucky ones. The chaw has mostly been replaced by the cleaner, less obvious “dip” but the effects are no less devastating. According to the American Cancer Society, three out of four people who use tobacco in their mouths have non-cancerous or pre-cancerous lesions.
Gwynn’s four-year battle started to decline rapidly in 2012, when he underwent a 14-hour operation to remove a malignant tumor from his right cheek. Eighteen months earlier, the Hall of Famer had surgery in the same area to address the first incidence of cancer.
Following that operation, Gwynn was unable to open his right eye or close his mouth. His speech was badly slurred.
That alone should’ve been a lesson to the world, if not the major league family. Gwynn was obviously dying because of tobacco, yet there was no groundswell among his peers to prevent future deaths.
In 2011, the Players Association voted down a proposal to ban tobacco from the major leagues. Instead, they agreed to a watered-down compromise that prohibits players from keeping tobacco tins in their uniform pockets. And they can’t do television interviews while chewing or using smokeless tobacco. But that’s it.
Apparently, the union feels any further regulation would be an intrusion on the players’ rights. I emailed union chief Tony Clark on Monday asking if he, personally, wants to see tobacco removed from the game. He did not respond, although I don’t really blame him for ducking for cover.
The dip’s lure is still too great among his constituents, especially now that amphetamines have been banned. If you want to know how big a bite the new drug policy has taken out of the game, see how slow the action is any afternoon following a night game. For many players, dip — or for some still hanging on to old-school chaw — tobacco is the last allowable vice.
“It’s a nasty habit, but it’s one of those traditions in baseball,” Red Sox manager John Farrell told the Boston Globe earlier this year.
He’s not alone in that sentiment. Mike Napoli said, “[Chewing] is just part of my routine when I play. It would feel weird without it. I’ve gone a couple of months without it. But as soon as I step on a field, I feel like I need it.”
To be fair, tobacco is officially banned at the minor league level, but the rules are only casually enforced. Teams will make a cursory sweep in the clubhouse, checking to see what’s in the lockers, but anyone who’s determined to stick tobacco in their mouths can do so in the dugout with impunity.
And once a prospect gets called up, he’s home free – all the tobacco he wants, any time, any place, as long he’s not caught on TV. Pity, because for most, the rush is only an illusion. Perhaps Clark will have the guts to stand up to his own rank and file in 2016, when the next Collective Bargaining Agreement is negotiated and say: enough.
We should speak as one in mourning Gwynn, who was so talented and so obviously not in need of an artificial boost. Of all the statistics that leave you breathless, this one stood out: Pedro Martinez was unable to strike out Gwynn in 36 career at-bats. Greg Maddux couldn’t get him in 107 tries.
Gwynn had everything going for him – a keen eye, incredible bat-speed and the ability to out-think a pitcher. Gwynn was a nightmare from 60 feet, 6 inches, although he found out the hard way that his athletic genes were no match for the cancer cells raging through his body.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate only 3.5 percent of Americans over the age of 12 are using dip. But that’s still nine million people needlessly at risk.
Sadly, we can make that nine million minus one. Such is the asterisk on the back of Gwynn’s baseball card:
“Died too young.”