Gwynn’s death makes Tigers, MLB reassess use of smokeless tobacco

Tony Gwynn made it to age 54 before he succumbed to salivary gland cancer.

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When I heard about Tony Gwynn’s death last month, I thought about a story I had seen on 60 Minutes many years ago.

It was about an 18-year-old high school track star named Sean Marsee who had used smokeless tobacco since he was 12.

Marsee found a small sore in his mouth, which turned out to be cancer. 

Doctors had to remove half of Marsee’s tongue. Marsee also underwent chemotherapy and radiation.

Then the doctors found more cancer and removed the rest of Marsee’s tongue, part of his pectoral muscle and lymph nodes in his neck.

Eventually doctors also took Marsee’s jawbone, but it just wasn’t enough.

Marsee died at age 19.

Gwynn made it to age 54 before he succumbed to salivary gland cancer, something he blamed on his use of smokeless tobacco.

I would often tell the professional athletes I dealt with about the Marsee story I saw on 60 Minutes, trying to encourage (nag) them to quit. 

But I never had much success. 

Me, as a guy that does it, it definitely opens my eyes and I’m sure it’s opened up many people, not only baseball players’ eyes.

Austin Jackson

First, because it is a real addiction.

Second, young, healthy athletes rarely think about such things. Marsee never did.

Maybe Gwynn’s story will have more of an impact.

Smokeless tobacco is already banned in minor league baseball and it could happen in Major League Baseball if the next collective bargaining agreement includes it.

Former Tiger and current players’ association executive director Tony Clark discussed the issue during the All-Star festivities.

"There are a number of players who made a decision (to quit) as soon as Tony passed," Clark said in Minneapolis. "It really smacks you between the eyes. But truth be told, it’s a process, and it takes time for some guys to wean themselves off or make whatever adjustment they need to make. 

"Everything is negotiable. We can have that conversation with Major League Baseball. But our hope is that the trend we’ve been on will continue and we can ultimately get to a place where they leave (tobacco) alone."

The current agreement, which runs for two more seasons, does not allow players to carry tobacco tins and packages in their back pockets when fans are allowed in the ballparks. They are also not permitted to use it during interviews or at team functions.

Clark was starting his career when another former Tiger, Bill Tuttle, was making his rounds around spring training camps in 1996.

Tuttle, diagnosed with oral cancer in 1993, was disfigured after losing part of his jaw, a cheek, teeth and taste buds to the disease. He wanted the players to see what 40 years of using smokeless tobacco had done to him.

Tuttle died in 1998 at age 69.

Torii Hunter just missed Tuttle’s tour, but remembered that when he first broke into the majors in 1997, things were very different. 

Back then, teams would actually provide the smokeless tobacco, a practice which ended in 2001.

"Back then, oh, my God, it was spit everywhere," Hunter said. "It was in the dugout. Less guys are doing it. Back then, they had it in their pocket, they shared it, it was like a drug."

Hunter did try it once when he was in the minors.

"In 1994, they gave me some wintergreen and I threw up," Hunter said. "Never again. That was my first time ever trying it. Because everybody did it. They were like, ‘Try it, T!’ I put a little bit, a pinch in my lip and I was like, aw, man. I was sick. I stuck my finger in my mouth to throw up. It was nasty. Then I was sinking in my pillow all night in my hotel room in A-ball."

Hunter is not the only one who had a fortunately bad first experience with smokeless tobacco.

"When I was younger, I tried it twice and threw up twice," Nick Castellanos said. "That was pretty much the end of my dipping or chewing tobacco experience. I guess that just supports what everybody says, which is this product can kill you."

But there are a few Tigers who do use smokeless tobacco.

"We’re all grown men and we are aware of the risks of chewing tobacco, among many other things that you can put in your system and harm yourself," said Rick Porcello, who has used it only in pro ball. "It’s a matter of how much you value that, I guess."

Austin Jackson, who said he only uses smokeless tobacco during the season while he’s at the field, admitted that Gwynn’s death has made him think more about it.

"Me, as a guy that does it, it definitely opens my eyes and I’m sure it’s opened up many people, not only baseball players’ eyes," Jackson said. "That’s an unfortunate situation that happened to not only a great baseball player but a great guy and it’s just sad that his life had to end at that age. Hopefully it brings some awareness, not only to myself, but to everybody in the world that uses smokeless tobacco."

Phil Coke has actively worked at quitting since the birth of his two daughters but admitted that it has not been easy.

"I have really good stretches and a couple bad ones," Coke said. "It’s one of those things, if you’re in a stressful situation and all of a sudden, for no good reason, you find yourself with a can in your hand.  I’m getting a full tank of gas, walk inside and get a can and walk out like nothing happened. Next thing I know, I have a dip in my mouth for 20 minutes. How did I do that? It had been months since I had one."

Before Gwynn, Hunter knew someone else who had battled cancer because of smokeless tobacco.

"I had a couple friends, guy by the name of Shane Bowers in the minor leagues, and he chewed so much," Hunter said. "He used his tongue to shift it. Two or three years later, he had cancer on his tongue and they had to remove it, the front part of his tongue. 

"I never did it anyway but that right there, now I try to stop people from doing it because I know what could happen."

Because most current players know of Gwynn, now they, too, know what can happen.

"I think everybody knows someone who’s dipped forever and nothing’s happened to them so you feel like why is it going to happen to me?" Castellanos said. "It’s extremely unfortunate that baseball lost a man like Tony Gwynn but hopefully kids coming up can see that chewing tobacco is dangerous and maybe his death can improve people being against chewing tobacco."