It’s now been a week since Tony Gwynn’s passing was announced after his bout with salivary gland cancer. The baseball world reacted with open arms towards the lasting impact he made on the game. The joy he brought, the character he showed, and the hitting numbers he produced during his Hall of Fame career were reason enough for San Diego to build a statue of him in front of Petco Park and for his name to be alongside some of the greatest to ever play the game. Players, personnel, and sportswriters who were able to watch Gwynn play during his 20-year career didn’t have enough positive words to explain what a great model for Major League Baseball was lost. Though, it wasn’t any mystery what may’ve caused Gwynn’s cancer and the fact of him being a casualty of a grotesque habit that is all too common at every level of baseball was evident.
"I guess, if you want to get technical, baseball killed him," Tom Friend, who started as a Padres beat writer in 1985, wrote in his obit on Gwynn last week. At Gwynn’s highest intake, he was going through a can and a half of Skoal a day. And that was at a yearly rate until he was diagnosed in 2010. How could one of the greatest baseball players – and not only, a person that so many held in such high regard – of this generation be addicted to such a life-threatening habit? Well the answer was obvious. Baseball has more or less been synonymous with smokeless chewing tobacco.
Eric Byrnes, who was in the Oakland Athletics system from 1998-2005, let everyone know in a blog post on his website of this reality. Positioning himself in a seat right next to Gwynn’s, Brynes admitted that he took his first chaw of Red Man tobacco at the age of 12 and had built a habit by the age of 22 in which he was chewing about a can a day. Fortunately, he found the strength to stop after the death of his father, but he also notes to everyone that is foreign to the addiction, that it’s not something he’ll ever say he has quit.
"I am not writing this as a PSA to get try to get people to stop chewing tobacco because I know it’s not possible. There is nothing I or anyone else can say or do that will get you to stop," the Bay Area native writes.
It now allows us to ponder what the future for baseball and chewing tobacco holds. Whenever discourse becomes prevalent, awareness starts to increase.
Currently, tobacco products are banned in the minors and the deal between the MLB and the players association that runs until 2016 disallows teams from providing players with chewing tobacco. It also prohibits players from appearing in television interviews chewing or visibly showing a can of smokeless tobacco when crowds are at the park.
Will Gywnn’s death cause enough stir on the topic for major league baseball and the players association to do something radically in 2016? Well, its caused Arizona Diamondbacks closer Addison Reed to throw away the seven cans in his locker and the two from his car. But it also didn’t stop presumably almost every other user to pack wads of it into their mouths throughout their day.
As someone who agrees with Brynes, it’s difficult to think of what measure should be taken. However, its not enough for it to be deemed as much part of ones daily routine as brushing your teeth. It shouldn’t stoop to a level where players and personnel accept a painful reality.
Reed realized it. Others probably have too, but ultimately no large ramifications to this way of life will ever be made without some sort of transformation along the league's lines.
On the opposite end, it is a legal drug and a grown man in Major League Baseball is allowed to make decisions on his own accord. Its impact on a player’s performance (to take an edge off) is largely the reason why many use it. Josh Hamilton’s hitting slumps are linked to quitting chewing tobacco, even.
So the question bodes, what’s the right course of action following the death of a transcendent star that seemed almost invincible on the field, though was using a substance that is linked to baseball and ending his life?