A year into his major league career Lance Lynn stood at a crossroad in his life.
He was a daily user of smokeless tobacco dating back to his minor league days, when a dip became an antidote to the off-day boredom faced by starting pitchers, a tasty time-killer and social stress reliever.
He knew the risks, as all ballplayers do. Warning labels shout from the three-dollar metal cans. But in baseball the stuff is ingrained in the game, going back to Babe Ruth’s day.
Still, it was time for Lynn to quit. With his first child set be born that offseason, Lynn stopped cold turkey after the 2011 playoffs. His daughter Mia, now two years old, both inspired his decision and reinforces it every day.
“Is it worth not being around for my kids later on?” Lynn said. “That was my way of stopping. Every time I thought of taking one I thought about her.”
It has been just more than a month since the death of Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn from salivary gland cancer, and in that time at least two major leaguers — Washington’s Stephen Strasburg and Arizona’s Addison Reed — have pledged to quit using the smokeless tobacco that Gwynn said triggered his disease.
Colloquially known around clubhouses as “dip” or “chew,” smokeless tobacco contains 28 carcinogens, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and is a known cause of oral cancer.
It famously disfigured former American League outfielder Bill Tuttle, who publicly advocated against the substance before it took his life in 1998. And even though before his death doctors told Gwynn his career-long habit wasn’t necessarily linked to his cancer, Gwynn himself was convinced, and that was enough for the baseball world.
Gwynn’s death and the reason for it “smacks you in the eyes,” MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark said during All-Star weekend. “Our hope is that we can continue to educate guys on the damage that dipping can do and they will continue to decide not to dip and chew.”
“At the end of the day,” Clark added, “we don’t condone it, and they know we don’t condone it.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates six percent of adult American men use smokeless tobacco — about half the rate of twenty years ago.
And while chew is still not an uncommon or inconspicuous sight in clubhouses, baseball is, slowly but surely, mirroring national trends.
“From when I first started playing baseball to now I think it has decreased dramatically,” said Cardinals second baseman Mark Ellis, a 13-year veteran. “I think guys are more aware of the problems it can cause. When I first started playing, in college and minor league ball, it was pretty prevalent. A lot of guys when I was growing up started really young. Guys aren’t doing that as much anymore. Kids are realizing it’s really not a very good thing for you.”
The Cardinal clubhouse houses a handful of regular dippers, between two and five guys, depending on roster moves. Some comparison: Boston Globe reporter Peter Abraham surveyed the Red Sox during Spring Training and found that 21 of 58 (36 percent) of players in camp dipped.
Overall, every player asked for this article said less than half of their teammates in their career have dipped. Many put their best guess around 15 percent. All said that is a recent but steady decrease.
Lynn is in his fourth season with the only team he’s ever played for, but even in his short tenure he’s noticed the dipping rate decrease.
“We’re probably on the lesser side, as far as clubhouses go,” Lynn said. “I would say that as the years have gone on here it has become a less than average (clubhouse in terms of dippers).”
That’s in no small part to the fact that Lynn, 27, and many other Cardinals are part of a generation of ballplayers that, thanks to an overload of information, the threat of fines while in the minor leagues, and, frankly, a heavy dose of fear, harnesses an acute sense of awareness.
Many made their decisions long before making the big leagues. Many of those first-encounter stories involve someone puking.
“I saw a kid during my freshman year in high school who threw one in for five minutes and threw up all over the place,” said reliever Jason Motte, 32. “I looked around and said, ‘I’m good.’ ”
And almost all dippers encounter this problem.
“My fiancée hated it,” said Kolten Wong, 26, who gave it up without much effort.
Even reliever Nick Greenwood, 26, who said he wants to quit soon, added this: “I don’t like doing it around my fiancée. When I’m home it’s almost cold turkey. But here it’s kind of hard not to, because there is so much down time, so much hanging out.”
Gwynn’s death reinforced the reality that many Cardinal players have guarded against for years.
“The topic has come up,” Lynn said of Gwynn’s death. “But I’d say there is more of guys getting on other guys, saying, ‘Do you know what that can do to you?’… Everybody is more accountable for the other guys now. It has definitely been brought up and made more aware to the guys who are doing it, where in years past, it was not even thought about.”
Smokeless tobacco has been banned in the minor leagues since the latest collective bargaining agreement was struck in 2001. Players get their cheeks swabbed during spring training physicals to determine the presence of pre-cancer spots. Per the CBA, major leaguers are not allowed to hold dip cans in their pockets during games, and they are not allowed to be photographed using it. But the fines are minimal, and dip is allowed in clubhouses, where cigarettes (and alcohol, in some organizations) have been outlawed for years.
The Players Association has fought against the major-league banning of a nonperformance-enhancing product that can be legally bought in stores.
A long line of voices shouting for a ban began with Tuttle and continues today with Bud Selig and Joe Garagiola, the former Cardinal who will be awarded the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award in Cooperstown this upcoming Hall of Fame weekend.
“It will be a subject they’ll discuss during the next collective bargaining,” commissioner Bud Selig said. “I understand individuals have a right to make their own decisions. I hope we’re successful. The Tony Gwynn story was a heartbreaking, awful story. I feel very strongly about this, just as I did 10, 15 years ago.
“The one thing I personally assume as commissioner is that we’re responsible for the health of our players,” he continued. “I believe that. Some may think that’s naive, but I don’t think so.”
Even former dippers like Lynn see the other side of the debate.
“That’s the toughest part, telling a guy he can’t do something that a guy in the stands can be doing,” Lynn said. “But there is a fine line between yes, we are grown adults and we are of the age to do those things. But we are also role models and people see us on TV.”
The eyes-everywhere media culture of today doesn’t let ballplayers decide when they can be role models and when they can’t. They are being watched when they don’t even know it — in the dugout, on Twitter, their every move scrutinized.
Motte said he gets compliments from fans for pitching with a bulging lower lip. But those fans are confusing tobacco for bubble gum. Motte’s oral fixation comes only with a slight sugar rush.
“If it was (dip), would that make me more or less cool?” Motte asked, rolling his eyes.
It’s the attention, Lynn said, ballplayers have to consider when they take center stage, on the field and in the eyes of kids.
Lynn has kicked the habit to the point where the smell of tobacco actually makes him nauseous now. If that’s not enough to deter him in certain situations, he has the perfect solution. He calls it thinking “one good thought.”
“That one good thought is my daughter,” Lynn said.