Jorge L. Ortiz
OAKLAND – Tony Gwynn’s multitude of accomplishments, career .338 batting average and pioneering use of video earned him the rapt attention of players whenever he talked baseball.
Major League Baseball also hopes that an even more important message he delivered posthumously is heeded.
Gwynn, who died Monday of oral cancer at age 54, speaks out against smokeless smoking in a recorded segment of an informational video that MLB is producing and plans to air this season. The Hall of Fame outfielder believed he developed cancer due to his years-long habit of using spit tobacco, although this was never medically confirmed.
It remains an open question whether Gwynn’s untimely death and stance against smokeless tobacco will reduce its use among players.
A study conducted by the Pro Baseball Athletic Trainers Society found that the number of major league players who use spit tobacco has decreased from about 50% to 33% over the past 20 years.
However, that’s still about 10 times the amount in the general population, according to the American Cancer Society, whose 2012 data shows that 3.5 percent of Americans 12 and older — or 9 million — consume the highly addictive product. .
“It’s certainly ingrained and something that’s part of our baseball culture, but it’s not exclusive to baseball,” said Oakland Athletics first baseman Brandon Moss, a non-user. “You would hope that a character like (Gwynn), something tragic like that happening would be a wake-up call to everyone, not just baseball players. … But most guys will probably consider this the loss of a great man and a great baseball player and leave it at that.
Indeed, the position of the actors seems to be that they are aware of the dangers but, as with smoking, it is up to each person to decide whether they wish to use what remains a legal product.
The National Cancer Institute says on its website that smokeless tobacco contains at least 28 chemicals that cause cancer — usually of the mouth, esophagus and pancreas — and can also lead to heart disease, gums and oral lesions.
“People understand the risks involved and choose to do it anyway,” Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. “We all do stupid things, no matter what your vice is. People can criticize these guys because they’re swimming and then someone is texting and driving.
And while Gwynn’s passing was lamented throughout the game, it didn’t seem to be interpreted by many players – who are generally in their 20s and 30s, with the accompanying sense of invincibility – as a bet on guard.
“It’s one of those things that’s scary and obviously you hope it’s not you,” said A’s catcher Stephen Vogt, who said he dives from time to time. “I don’t think it’s good. I’m certainly not advocating it, but at the same time it’s an adult decision.
Baseball has taken steps to influence this decision, or at least make the practice less visible to minimize the impact on young fans.
The current collective bargaining agreement, in effect from 2012 to 2016, prohibits players, managers and coaches from using smokeless tobacco during television interviews and team appearances. And they must keep tobacco products out of sight while fans are at the stadium.
Additionally, MLB and the players’ union have stepped up their educational efforts and teams – who in the past handed out free cans of dip in the clubhouse – can no longer do so and are now required to pass out oral exams as part of spring training physicals. every year.
Longtime TV announcer Joe Garagiola, who gave up smokeless tobacco in his 30s, has made it his mission to warn other baseball fans of its dangers, making presentations during spring training alongside of former major league outfielder Billy Tuttle, who died of oral cancer at age 69. in 1998.
“I don’t think we talk about it enough anymore,” Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “I remember as a young A-ball manager, Joe Garagiola would always come to spring training with Bill Tuttle. It was scary.
“And I still see people chewing tobacco. Not just in the major leagues, but you still see kids in middle school and high school.
For me, this is still not enough. It’s a shame.”
Indeed, the sight of players constantly spitting, some sporting a large ball of tobacco in their cheek, remains one of the defining images of the game.
“Every spring training we get a guy who got mouth cancer from smoking,” Rangers utilityman Donnie Murphy said. “So you see it. But at the same time, it’s like an addiction. You’ve been doing it for so long that you’re going to want to keep doing it.
Players say consuming smokeless tobacco provides a form of relaxation and is part of their routine in a daily sport with a lot of downtime.
And since amphetamines are now banned in baseball, the energy boost from tobacco’s nicotine – absorbed longer by steeping or chewing it than by smoking it – can help players get through the six months of the season.
Commissioner Bud Selig has expressed a desire to ban smokeless tobacco in the majors the same way MLB banned it in the minors starting in 1993. But the issue is subject to collective bargaining and the association players declined, choosing to protect individual freedoms and emphasize education. .
“The MLBPA discourages the use of smokeless tobacco products by its members or any other person. These products carry serious health risks, but remain legally and widely available,” said union spokesperson Greg Bouris, by email. The smokeless tobacco policy negotiated in 2011 includes restrictions/bans on its use, increased emphasis on education and cessation programs, and oral examinations. Currently, player education continues to be one of our priorities.
Contributor: Paul White in Washington