When Curt Schilling, 47, announced Wednesday morning that he had suffered from oral cancer, the news wasn’t a surprise. That had been the speculation since the former Red Sox righthander announced earlier this year he had been diagnosed with cancer. But he had declined to specify which type until now.
On Wednesday, he didn’t mince words linking his cancer to his 30 years of using smokeless tobacco.
“I’ll go to my grave believing that was why I got what I got,” he said during an appearance on WEEI’s Jimmy Fund Radio Telethon.
Schilling’s news filtered through Fenway Park before Wednesday night’s game against the Angels. Following the death of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who was 54, from oral cancer in June — and also a user of smokeless tobacco — Schilling’s news caught some off-guard.
“It’s of course heartbreaking,” said 21-year-old Red Sox prospect Mookie Betts. “A great player like Curt Schilling, who played all those years and means so much to so many people. Nothing against him at all, but it just shows tobacco use doesn’t care who you are. Tony Gwynn, a great player. It doesn’t matter who you are. You can get cancer from it and you can get sick from it. So I think it’s important for the young players to see that and recognize it and realize that you need to stop. I try and get guys to stop.”
The hope, though, is that Schilling’s announcement, along with the death of Gwynn, will serve as a warning to others.
While tobacco use has been a part of the culture of the game for decades, Major League Baseball is trying to change that.
“It’s banned throughout the minor leagues and it has been for a number of years,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell. “MLB has taken steps to dissuade players from using it through educational programs that are administered to every team. It’s even gotten to the point now where players can be fined if smokeless tobacco is in view of the general public. And there have been some of those warnings or penalties levied on some of our guys.
“The number of guys that use it here, I don’t have an exact count. But I do know some of our guys do use it.”
The message of the dangers of tobacco use has gotten through to some players. Angels catcher Chris Iannetta, 31, was born in Providence and was a fourth-round by the Rockies in 2004 out of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the heart of tobacco country.
“That’s something that, unfortunately, it’s a habit. Fortunately for me, it’s a habit I never started, that or smoking,” Iannetta said. “I saw how hard it was to quit for everybody else. So I just said, you know what, I might as well not even start. Obviously anyone that’s battling any form of cancer, my heart goes out to them and their family and you hope that they can battle through it.”
Standing up to peer pressure was not an issue for Iannetta.
“It wasn’t too hard for me,” he said. “It wasn’t something that I really cared too much about. So it was on the easier end of the spectrum. But for a lot of people it’s a lot harder. I grew up in the Northeast, where I don’t think it’s as prevalent as it is in some other regions of the country.”
Betts had great incentive to not give in to the pressure.
“I’ve had a lot of people ask me [to try it],” he said. “But I’ll never in my life do that just because I see what it looks like. My mom and my fianceé say if I ever do that, we’ll both leave you. So I can’t lose my mom and her.”
Betts, who is from Brentwood, Tenn., tries to pass that message on when he goes home.
“I stress to kids in high school and middle school, everybody who sees it, because growing up everybody sees big league guys spitting and chewing,” he said. “I had guys on my high school team do it and I didn’t. I just didn’t understand the point of following, knowing that it says ‘can cause cancer’ on the can. So I really stress to those kids back in high school not to do it.”