One of my best memories in more than 25 years as a journalist has nothing to do with the Super Bowls, World Series or NCAA tournaments that I’ve been privileged to cover.
It doesn’t involve the Rose, Sugar, Orange or Fiesta bowls. It isn’t the Kentucky Derby, NBA All-Star Game or PGA events with Tiger Woods. It didn’t take place at Wrigley Field, Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium.
All of those were tremendous, unforgettable experiences. But another recollection that stands out is going to Tony Gwynn’s house.
I was in San Diego on assignment for USA Today Baseball Weekly in the mid-90s. Gwynn wasn’t the subject of my story but an incredible opportunity presented itself via a friend, veteran Southern Cal journalist Brad Turner, who was at the ballpark. A San Diego State alum like Gwynn, Turner was buddies with the eight-time batting champion.
He asked if I was interested in accompanying him to Gwynn’s house that evening. Duh, of course! He got Gwynn’s OK and I was there several hours later. I met Gwynn’s lovely wife, Alicia, marveled at his impressive memorabilia collection and engaged in a leisurely conversation with one of baseball’s greatest hitters ever. It made for a nice story.
I can’t remember if he dipped tobacco that evening.
Now that he’s dead from oral cancer at 54, I wish baseball had banned the practice during his 20-year Hall of Fame career.
Baseball took small steps but came up short when it signed its current labor agreement with the players’ union in 2011. The measures were largely cosmetic, mandating that smokeless tobacco be kept out of view from fans and TV cameras. That’s why we no longer see those easy-to-distinguish cans in back pockets.
But when it came to banning the product altogether – which has been the case in the minor leagues since 1993 – the union objected. Instead, it agreed to mandatory oral exams during spring training, as well as an extensive education campaign and cessation support system.
I can imagine how some of those exams go:
Doctor: “I’m concerned about this area where you put your tobacco. You’re at risk for oral cancer and you should stop.”
Player (reaching for his tin while walking away): “OK. Thanks, doc.”
Addictions aren’t broken that easily, especially not in a culture where tobacco is as ingrained as sunflower seeds and bubble gum. Having a ban in the minors, but not the majors, simply means users cheat or find workarounds until they’re called up, where they’re free to dip and chew at will.
Commissioner Bud Selig saw the resistance and relented on a major-league ban in 2011. The union’s former executive director, the late Michael Weiner, said back then: “Our members understand that this is a dangerous product, there are serious risks associated with using it. Our players felt strongly that those were appropriate measures to take but that banning its use on the field was not appropriate under the circumstances.”
Apparently, that stance hasn’t changed.
The MLBPA “long has and continues to discourage the use of smokeless tobacco products by its members or by anyone else,” spokesman Greg Bouris said Tuesday in an email. “These products carry serious health risks and remain legally and widely available.”
Cigarettes and alcohol remain legal and widely available, too, but those products are banned on the field.
This has nothing to do with legalities or free choice. If adults want to kill themselves through smoking or drinking, they have every right.
However, employers establish what’s acceptable in the workplace. Beards are perfectly legal but they’re not allowed if you play for the New York Yankees. Many teams institute dress codes for traveling.
I don’t see the union objecting to those measures. Just this one, which could be a life saver.
Will Gwynn’s death be a turning point? At least not for Dodgers pitcher Josh Beckett, who says he has been dipping since he was 17.
“I could sit here and lie to you and tell you, ‘yes,’” Beckett told The Los Angeles Times. “But unfortunately, it would be just a straight lie. I’m addicted to it.”
Shame on the union for aiding and abetting its membership’s addiction. Opposing a ban makes it that much easier for players to become and remain hooked.
Maybe Gwynn’s final plea in an education film produced by MLB and the Pro Baseball Athletic Trainers Society will help when it’s released to all major and minor leaguers this year.
According to a statement by PBATS president Mark O’Neal, Gwynn says: “My advice to anyone would be if you aren’t using spit tobacco, please don’t start. And if you are using, try to quit. If not for yourself, then do it for the people you love.”
Alicia, Tony Jr., Anisha, the rest of his family and the entire baseball community wish Gwynn had heeded his own advice.
Here’s hoping the players’ union supports a ban in the next labor agreement, to assist the loved ones of current and future ballplayers.