San Francisco Giants

Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn’s death puts use of smokeless tobacco in baseball back in spotlight

A’s pitcher Jesse Chavez said the small amount of chewing tobacco he puts in his mouth before taking the mound is just one of his routines on the days he starts games, akin to going over a game plan and selecting the music he uses to warm up.

“I have a chew when I pitch and that’s once every five days,” Chavez said. “It’s something that relaxes me, instead of having a lot of seeds out there and trying to spit the shells in between pitches. But I try not to spit out there.

“I try to minimize it and try and keep it out of the public eye, as does everybody else. But it just comes with baseball, I guess, in a way.”

For years, Major League Baseball has discouraged the use of smokeless tobacco, a substance known to be a potential cause of cancer, making presentations during spring training and distributing literature to the players. It remains a presence in the game, nonetheless.

The issue resurfaced this week following the death of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who played all 20 of his seasons for the San Diego Padres. Gwynn, who died of cancer Monday at the age of 54, had said he believed his cancer was a result of using smokeless tobacco.

Following his death, a range of voices – including former major-leaguer and broadcaster Joe Garagiola, who regularly visits teams during spring training to lecture on the dangers of smokeless tobacco – have called for stronger steps to rid it from the sport.

“Smokeless is not harmless,” Garagiola told Bloomberg News this week. He advocates a complete ban of smokeless tobacco.

Major League Baseball rules introduced before the 2012 season as part of the most recent collective bargaining agreement prohibit players and coaches from carrying tobacco products in uniform pockets and using them during TV interviews or team appearances. Violators are subject to warnings and fines.

Smokeless tobacco is banned in the minor leagues, and a similar ban for the majors was proposed in the latest round of collective bargaining but met resistance from the players union. Instead, MLB introduced policies limiting visibility – especially to children who may mimic big leaguers’ behavior – and expanding education for players on the effects of smokeless tobacco use.

“I had melanoma, and two years ago, my head-and-neck surgeon talked to me on my many visits to Sloan Kettering on the dangers of smokeless tobacco,” baseball Commissioner Bud Selig told the Boston Globe this week. “I had Rob (Manfred, deputy commissioner) take my doctor to a meeting with the players union health committee. The doctor made a presentation to them. I feel strongly.”

A survey published in a 2003 installment of the Journal of Athletic Training found that of 616 rookie players entering professional baseball in the summer of 1999, 67 percent had tried smokeless tobacco and 31 percent were using it in some form. The most common cited were oral snuff, or “dip,” which is usually held inside the lower lip or between the cheek and gum, and chewing tobacco, which is more coarsely cut and chewed.

Use in baseball is thought to have declined in recent years, but it has not gone away.

“At the end of the day, it’s legal,” A’s shortstop Jed Lowrie said. “You’re talking about grown men (and) unless baseball bans it, I think it’s hard to tell a grown man what he can and can’t do when something is legal.”

Lowrie said he doesn’t use smokeless tobacco.

“I know the consequences, and I choose not to because I know the consequences,” Lowrie said. “But that doesn’t mean the guy sitting next to me shouldn’t be allowed to make that choice.”

Some players still dip and chew in part because they are habits long associated with the sport’s culture.

“Especially in this baseball world, it’s kind of been used throughout time,” said A’s second baseman Eric Sogard, who said he tried it once and it “never really sat well with me.”

Added Chavez: “I just think it’s a situational habit for guys, or maybe a routine or a nervous tic or something like that.”

Chavez said he doesn’t chew tobacco in the offseason. During the playing season, he said, he limits his use to when he’s pitching, “and if I’m bored in the dugout or we need a rally or something like that. And that’s what a lot of guys do – ‘rally dip’ is a key term in baseball.”

That thinking persists despite warnings about the risks. According to the American Cancer Society, use of smokeless tobacco increases risk of mouth, cheek and gum cancer, plus other health issues such as gum disease and mouth lesions that can become cancerous.

Smokeless tobacco contains 28 cancer-causing agents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and can lead to nicotine addiction, making some users more likely to become cigarette smokers. According to the CDC, an estimated 3 percent of adults in the United States use smokeless tobacco, with men (6 percent) much more likely to do so than women (less than 1 percent).

In 2012, MLB began requiring oral examinations as part of player physicals. And Sogard said past users have made presentations during spring training in recent years.

“Guys come in to kind of share their story about how it’s affected their lives,” Sogard said. “Some guys are missing jaws. It’s a scary thing.”

A’s manager Bob Melvin said he believes the MLB is “doing the best they can to create awareness and try to get the players off it – whether that’s education (or) any number of things that they do, I think they do the best they can with it.”

But, Melvin said, “These are grown men, so what are you going to do?”

Asked whether the death of a respected and beloved player like Gwynn might increase awareness and concern in clubhouses, several A’s players said it’s possible.

Chavez said Gwynn’s death “is going to open eyes.” And reliever Sean Doolittle said that since Gwynn’s death, he had “talked to several guys that have already talked about curtailing it.”

“It’s something that’s tough to do during the season when you’re around it all the time and your brain and your body associate using it around the field,” Doolittle said. “But I’ve talked to several guys that have mentioned either pulling way back or trying to quit this offseason, after the season’s over.

“You look at a guy like (Gwynn), he was larger than life. He was everything that was good about baseball. What he meant to that city (San Diego), and his career, if it can happen to him, it can happen to anybody. So I think a lot of guys, maybe they’ll think about it a little differently, just because of what happened to him.”

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