Commentary: Tony Gwynn died too young; life cut short by chewing tobacco

By By Bob Klapisch

The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (MCT)

Published: Tuesday, June 17 2014 8:40 a.m. MDT

San Diego Padres' Tony Gwynn waves to the crowd during team introductions before the 72nd All-Star game at Safeco Field in Seattle on Tuesday, July 10, 2001.

Elaine Thompson, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

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 The chaw has mostly been replaced by the cleaner, less obvious “dip” but the effects are no less devastating.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.

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