Gwynn's legacy has even more to give
Hall of Famer left lasting lesson about the dangers of chewing tobacco
Tony Gwynn's baseball legacy is secure.
The man changed the way hitters approach their craft, his dutiful study of video back when VCRs were still in vogue eventually giving way to the advanced technological scrutiny prevalent in every professional clubhouse.
Gwynn was outspoken about the issues of performance-enhancing drugs at a time when that point of view was not a popular one among his peers.
The sheer statistical stupefactions on the back of Gwynn's baseball card (he could have had another 1,182 at-bats at the end of his career, made nothing but outs and still been a lifetime .300 hitter) forever give him a place in any conversation about the greatest hitters of all time.
Gwynn was generally and genuinely regarded as both a Hall of Fame player and a Hall of Fame person.
Yet there's another meaningful element of Gwynn's life and his death -- caused by cancer of the mouth -- that has the potential to punctuate his legacy all the more. Cranking out hits is one thing; saving lives is another. And maybe, if enough people pay attention to the words the 54-year-old Gwynn left behind about his habit of using smokeless tobacco, one of the more unfortunate aspects of baseball's culture will change dramatically.
"Of course, [smokeless tobacco] caused [the cancer]," Gwynn once said. "I always dipped on my right side."
The side where the cancer spread.
Don't take this as an attempt to grandstand or call for an outright ban on smokeless tobacco, because Major Leaguers are grown men capable of making their own decisions. Smokeless tobacco has been banned in the Minor Leagues for over two decades, but its use remains evident behind the scenes.
The changes made in the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement, when the Players Association agreed to rules prohibiting teams from providing tobacco to players and prohibiting players from carrying tobacco tins or conducting interviews while chewing, helped tame tobacco's role on the big league stage and hopefully reduced its impact on impressionable eyes.
Ultimately, though, the use of tobacco is a personal choice, and we can only hope that the plight of Gwynn, cut down at an all-too-young age, is evidence enough.
Smokeless tobacco contains 28 carcinogens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is a known cause of oral cancer. Gwynn's doctors told him his longtime use of tobacco was not necessarily the cause of his specific salivary gland cancer, and the American Council on Science and Health has found no scientific link between the two. But Gwynn himself was convinced, and his experience ought to be enough to give users pause.
In a thoughtful essay published shortly after news of Gwynn's death spread, Tom Friend, a former Padres beat writer now writing for ESPN.com, wrote that Gwynn's addiction to chew began in rookie ball, when he was "so paranoid that his swing would fall to pieces overnight that he would dip smokeless tobacco to take the edge off." The habit only grew from there, getting so bad that Gwynn would sneak out of the house late at night to buy tobacco at a convenience store, out of sight from his sleeping wife, who begged him to quit the snuff.
"I'm a tobacco junkie," Gwynn once told Friend.
No doubt, many other ballplayers who initially turned to tobacco to kill time or satisfy an oral fixation or simply to satisfy a perceived "look," know the feeling.
Smokeless tobacco ultimately claimed the life of Bill Tuttle, who had his jaw removed as part of his oral cancer treatment. Known tobacco users Babe Ruth and Curt Flood both died of cancer of the throat, though those conditions could have been equally attributable to alcohol. But Gwynn now stands, sadly, a modern-day example of a problem that persists in baseball in dramatic disproportion to the rest of our society.
On its website, the CDC estimates that about 6 percent of adult American men (and 1 percent of women) use smokeless tobacco. The Center states that use is about half of what it was in the mid-1990s.
That's progress on a national level, but, sans access to actual statistics on the matter, I can only rely on my eyes as a guy who routinely visits clubhouses to tell you that it is clear more than 6 percent of current Major League players use the product. One clubhouse guy I asked estimated the number is closer to 50 percent among players and coaches.
Further education about the perils of smokeless tobacco use is important, because too many people still wrongly consider it a "safe" alternative to cigarettes. The Mayo Clinic has linked it not only to esophageal and various types of oral cancer but also to cavities, gum disease and heart disease.
It's also loaded with nicotine, so it's dangerously addictive, particularly within a clubhouse culture that has too often encouraged it. The Angels' Josh Hamilton and the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg are two well-known players who have been associated with the use of tobacco on the field.
Hamilton famously quit dipping in the summer of 2012. When he struggled at season's end, Hamilton was criticized by some for trying to quit midseason and opening himself up to withdrawal symptoms. When his struggles continued into 2013, Hamilton resumed chewing.
"I quit because I wanted to quit, and I started back because I wanted to start back," Hamilton said Tuesday. "Trying to quit tobacco during the baseball season is like being an alcoholic and getting a job as a bartender. You're not putting yourself in the best position to succeed. Guys struggle with it."
Strasburg has cited Gwynn as a "father figure," having grown up watching him and then playing for him at San Diego State. It was not long after Gwynn's initial 2010 diagnosis of oral cancer that Strasburg pledged to quit dipping, but he has since taken it up again. Strasburg did not talk about tobacco use on Tuesday, but his manager, Matt Williams, had this to say:
"Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows yes or no or maybe," Williams said. "But of course it does [make you think]. It hits home with a lot of folks, and it's been part of our sport for a long time. But it certainly makes you think."
These guys know better, but Hamilton and Strasburg illustrate how destructively addictive the habit can be, particularly in a sport with a grinding regular season in which so many succumb to superstition or simply are bound by routine.
Maybe what happened to Gwynn will change the equation for some guys. Maybe not.
"If it can alter even one person," Hamilton said, "that's good."
As with any habit, though, the best way to curb tobacco use is to never start, and that's where Gwynn's impact can really kick in. Young fans and aspiring ballplayers already had a wealth of easily accessible knowledge about the dangers of carcinogens at their disposal. But now they also have the sad story of Gwynn, a Hall of Famer not only gone too soon but, if his own inductive reasoning is to be believed, avoidably.
That's not a legacy Tony Gwynn wanted to leave. But it could be one with a profound long-term impact on a sport and the lives it touches.