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MLB: Tony Gwynn's Death and Chewing Tobacco in Baseball

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MLB: Tony Gwynn's Death and Chewing Tobacco in Baseball
Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

Major League Baseball mourned an all-time great player and person on June 16 when San Diego Padres icon Tony Gwynn died. More than a week has gone by and Gwynn's death is still impacting others around baseball, particularly those who use smokeless or chewing tobacco.

Gwynn was just 54 when he died following a tumultuous battle with parotid (mouth) cancer. While multiple factors could have contributed to his cancer, Gwynn was always adamant that a chewing tobacco habit that he kept up long after his playing days was the the culprit.

Back in 2010, Gwynn told Bill Center of U-T San Diego that chew was to blame following his original diagnosis. “I haven’t discussed that with the doctors yet, but I’m thinking it’s related to dipping,” Gwynn said.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Gwynn's suspicions made sense.

Chewing tobacco and snuff contain 28 carcinogens (cancer–causing agents). Smokeless tobacco increases the risk for cancer of the oral cavity, which can include cancer of the lip, tongue, cheeks, gums, and the floor and roof of the mouth. Other effects include oral leukoplakia (white mouth lesions that can become cancerous), gum disease, and gum recession (when the gum pulls away from the teeth). Possible increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, and reproductive problems are being studied.

The American Cancer Society lists smokeless tobacco as a cause of mouth, tongue, cheek, gum and throat cancer as well.

For decades, Gwynn put pinches, even handfuls of tobacco in his mouth day after day. He started every game of his career by putting a wad in his mouth. This year, a habit picked up while playing rookie ball in 1981 finally caught up with him.

Jim Mone/Associated Press

While it may be too late for Mr. Padre, the Hall of Famer's death has had a positive impact on at least two present day big leaguers.

In the days since Gwynn's death, Washington's Stephen Strasburg and Arizona's Addison Reed, who both played under Gwynn at San Diego State University, announced they would cease their own dipping habits. 

According to ESPN, Reed threw out several chewing tobacco tins in the locker room following the death of his former college coach. He explained how his use came about: 

It's one of those things where I've done it for so long it's just become a habit, a really bad habit. It was something I always told myself I would quit, like next month, and the next thing you know it's been six or seven years.

It started to get bad my first year in pro ball and it's one of those things where I've always done it. I'd come to the field and throw one in and have multiple ones. I'd have one on the ride home, one on the way to the field and it was one of those things where I always had one with me.

Strasburg cited his family as an additional reason to give up using, according to Bill Ladson of MLB.com.

I think it's a disgusting habit, looking back on it. I was pretty naive when I started. Just doing it here and there, I didn't think it was going to be such an addiction. Bottom line is, I want to be around for my family. This is something that can affect people the rest of your life. [Chewing tobacco is] so prevalent in this game. It's something we all kind of grew up doing.

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press
Strasburg and Gwynn

Hopefully this is a trend that continues in the majors. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported that an MLB survey found that smokeless tobacco use among players is down to 33 percent. It was at 50 percent 20 years ago.

However, Heyman also reported that MLB's efforts to ban tobacco products in the game all together failed at the last collective bargaining agreement talks:

MLB pushed for a ban at the bargaining table at the last CBA talks, and while only one-third of MLB players still use the stuff, it was said to be one of the last things to resolve on the table. A ban realistically never had much hope.

MLB is said by people involved in the talks to actually have 'pushed very hard' for the banning of smokeless tobacco in those discussions, with the players' union pushing back just as hard to keep it legal in the game. The union, driven on this issue by its players, ultimately won the point, though some rule refinements were intended to lessen usage and the harm caused by it.

With a nod to the concept of MLB players as role models, the players did agree to a program to promote quitting, to keep usage discreet and to mandate spring mouth screenings. But smokeless tobacco, while banned at the minor-league level, remains legal in the majors, provided the can or tin isn't visible. If it is visible, warnings and finings were laid out.

While it may not be the result the league was hoping for, this program is a good one. With the players union dead set against a ban, keeping the tins out of the spotlight is the next best thing. These players are indeed role models, so when kids see them dipping and spitting, they want to get in on it, too. Far too many young ballplayers have picked up the habit without realizing the potential damage they were doing.

It was in eighth grade when I first noticed my teammates dipping. Think about that. That is a 13-year-old kid on an addictive substance. Naturally, the number of players around me packing continued to grow as the years went by and we got older. Throughout years of high school and travel ball, I was one of only a few not to touch the stuff. At the very least, almost everyone tried it.

I asked a lot of my teammates why they dipped over the years. Some liked the buzz while others just did it because it was used so frequently around them. However, one answer always stood out to me.

"Its a baseball thing" was something I heard over and over again. I always wanted to argue against that idea, but it was true.

No baseball organization has showcased this "thing" more than Major League Baseball. It has become part of the game's culture, and that is not good. Kids see pros chewing and spitting and they want to try it.

Bill Wechter/Getty Images

The problem is they do not realize the harm they are doing, the fact that these substances are addictive. Forget that it is a disgusting habit as Strasburg said, it takes years off your life! There is no other reason for a professional athlete to be dead at 54.

In the wake of Gwynn's death, it is good to see that a few guys have realized the dangers of their tobacco use. The league has already tried to rid baseball of tobacco products. Hopefully players, at all levels, begin to do their part.

 

What are your thoughts on chewing tobacco in baseball? Feel free to comment below or follow me on Twitter @GPhillips2727 to talk anything baseball.

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