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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Tony Gwynn’s death reinforces danger of smokeless tobacco

A chaw of tobacco in the mouth of a baseball player is still a common sight. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

file photo/Jim Davis/Globe Staff

A chaw of tobacco in the mouth of a baseball player is still a common sight.

Smokeless kills.

And yet big league ballplayers, coaches, and managers still use smokeless tobacco.

Continue reading below

Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn died of salivary gland cancer Monday at the age of 54. Gwynn blamed his mouth cancer on his habit of dipping smokeless tobacco during his 20-year career with the San Diego Padres.

It’s a baseball thing, and it’s killing players, and many don’t want to stop. Or they can’t stop.

Clay Buchholz and Dustin Pedroia, two Red Sox stars with young children, addressed their bad habit before Tuesday night’s game against the Minnesota Twins at Fenway Park.

“Cancer runs in my family,’’ said Buchholz, as he sat in front of his locker with a wad of smokeless tobacco wedged between his lower lip and gums. “There’s been people that have never smoked a cigarette or had a dip or chew and they’ve died of lung cancer.

“Everybody here is a grown man, and I think that’s how everybody views it. I don’t dip during the offseason, it’s only during baseball. It’s more of a stress-reliever type of thing for me.’’

“I’m trying to stop,’’ said Pedroia. “It’s not a good habit. It’s one of those things, you try like heck. I wish I had never started.

“Everyone crushes me about it. You don’t want any kid to start doing it. Obviously, it’s addicting. It’s not good for you and can cause a lot of problems.

“You try the best you can to stop or not start it. It’s like any bad habit. People do things that aren’t good for you. A lot of things can hurt yourself, whether it’s drinking or tobacco. It’s hard to stop. I’ve stopped a few times and started back up. But I’ve cut back a lot.’’

“I’m addicted to it,’’ former Sox pitcher Josh Beckett told the Los Angeles Times Monday. “It’s more than just the nicotine. It’s the oral fixation. I don’t think anyone does it just for the nicotine thing, or we’d probably all be on the patch.’’

Major League Baseball discourages the century-old habit. Baseball’s latest collective bargaining agreement, instituted in 2001, stipulates that smokeless tobacco is banned in all professional minor leagues. MLB teams are not permitted to make it available in clubhouses, but it is not banned.

Reached at his office in Milwaukee Tuesday, baseball commissioner Bud Selig said, “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.

“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.

“Joe Garagiola has spent his life on this issue. He used to bring Billy Tuttle around. Billy Tuttle was an outfielder with Kansas City and Detroit and he died of mouth cancer.’’

“I remember that,’’ said former Red Sox outfielder Tommy Harper, who played 15 seasons in the majors and never dipped. “They’d bring Billy Tuttle into the clubhouse and he’d talk to us about how it was killing him and then he’d leave and everybody’d go back to chewing.’’

The Red Sox hold a seminar each spring advising players on the dangers of smokeless tobacco, but when the Globe’s Peter Abraham surveyed Sox players (major league and minor league) in Fort Myers this year, 21 of 58 reported that they dip or chew.

“The steps that are taken by MLB to educate everyone in the game are what we adhere to,’’ said Sox manager John Farrell, who was no stranger to the substance when he played but who says he has stopped.

“I can’t give you an exact number of guys here that might choose to use tobacco. All are assuming a certain level of risk. When something like this happens with Tony Gwynn, whether it’s directly related to smokeless tobacco, it makes everyone in the game pause and look at . . . does the individual need to make a conscious decision for himself to use it?’’

Former Sox manager Terry Francona keeps several canisters of his favorite chew (Lancaster) within reach whenever he is in uniform.

“It’s the weirdest thing with that,’’ Francona said last week at Fenway. “It’s only when I’m in uniform. The whole year I was out of the dugout, I never used it. Never felt like I wanted it. Never had an urge.

“It’s the same every offseason. I take the uniform off in October and I never think about it. But as soon as I get to spring training and get in uniform, I’m asking myself, ‘Where’s the chew?’ ’’

In 2009, Francona lost a $20,000 bet with Sox CEO Larry Lucchino. The Sox boss (a two-time cancer survivor) wanted to see whether his manager could quit chewing, and Francona barely made it through the first month of the season. Sox players and coaches noted that their manager was unusually agitated.

“I couldn’t make it without the stuff,’’ said Francona. “Nobody wanted to be around me. My coaches and players were telling me to just pay up. Finally, I snapped at a NESN cameraman during a rain delay and I yelled for the clubbie to get me some [expletive] Lancaster.

“Later that day, I wrote a check for $20,000 to Children’s Hospital and I left Larry a phone message telling him that I lost.’’

David Ortiz keeps a big wad in his right cheek when he hits, then spits it out after his at-bat.

“It keeps me smooth and puts me in a good mood,’’ Ortiz told the Globe in March.

Smokeless tobacco is prohibited in high school and college baseball, and Selig envisions a day when the players agree to ban the practice in big league ball, but thus far, the players union has rejected the notion.

“There’s no sense in me dancing around the issue,’’ said the commissioner. “I feel strongly about this and I feel there will be conversations between us and the Players Association.

“If you’d talk to my doctor, you’d never use this stuff. I understand how tough this is and I’m sympathetic. But this is very serious. I can only hope the players are getting the message.’’

They are certainly getting the message, but many are willing to take the risk. Even when Tony Gwynn dies from smokeless tobacco. It’s part of the baseball culture.

Some players think the threat is overstated. Others use the airplane crash analogy: Folks die in plane crashes, but that doesn’t stop most of us from flying.

Bubblegum and sunflower seeds don’t do the job for every player.

“There’s not really a reason why I would stop during the season,’’ said Buchholz. “It’s more of a routine thing. I think that’s how some people view it.

“It’s obviously not the best thing for you and everybody knows that, but it’s a choice people make. It’s an alternative to whatever else you don’t want to do. Not the best alternative, but that’s the way it goes.’’

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Dan_Shaughnessy.
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