The first 13 years of my life, I was all candy cigarettes (the ones with gum, to this day) and Big League Chew. When I was 14, though, I started dabbling in some of the real stuff. Nothing too exciting, but 14 is when I tried for the first time just about every drug I was destined to try. I still love booze, but I was never into very much else, and I never really tried any hard substances. But that year I drank for the first time, I smoked both weed and cigarettes for the first time, and I dipped for the first time.
All that other stuff I’ve done at least sporadically since, but I never dipped at any other age in my life, just when I was 14. The first few times, my buddy had this stale can of Kodiak, and it was kind of cool but it didn’t really feel like much of anything. Somehow we discovered that one of the local liquor stores didn’t ID, and I went out and bought a can of Skoal. I still remember the smell of the freshly opened can.
We went up to the upper athletic field at Meadowbrook Middle School in Poway and we were just hanging out, spitting into the grass, shooting the shit, acting like we weren’t geeks who wished we were jocks. And then it hit me. Because I’d gotten used to dipping on stale stuff, I’d been swallowing too much of the tobacco juice. It was bad times, and it got worse fast.
At Meadowbrook, there’s a long ramp that goes down to the main level of the school, and the locker rooms and drinking fountains were down at the bottom of the ramp. Feeling sick, I set off down the ramp, hoping to make it into the open locker room door and the bathroom inside. I got about 10 steps and puked my guts out. Took a couple more steps, puked again. Repeated that process 3 more times. By the time I actually got to the bottom of the ramp, I was done and just needed a drink from the fountain and a nap.
I never dipped again. It was too traumatic an experience. Plus, even after only a half dozen or so times, I could see my gums getting some discoloration. It was all really gross, and definitely not for me.
As we all know, Tony Gwynn died last week at just 54 years old, losing his battle to salivary cancer, a cancer he believed he would have avoided entirely had he not been hopelessly addicted to chewing tobacco. This is not a medically proven theory, but it doesn’t really matter. Tony thought so, and that’s good enough for me.
The only reason Tony Gwynn chewed tobacco is because he played Major League Baseball, and Major League Baseball is the only major American sport in which players use tobacco products while playing.
Most players don’t chew anymore, and smoking in the dugout or clubhouse seems to be pretty much over now that Jim Leyland is retired, though I don’t believe it’s been officially banned other than by local municipalities. Chewing Tobacco was banned in the minors in 1993, and that plus increased education and probably a little bit of guilt has helped dramatically decrease usage in the majors.
But it’s still out there. If I had to guess, I’d say 15-20% of the league still uses, and the player’s union opposes a complete ban. ESPN mainstay Keith Olbermann, who has so wonderfully eulogized both Tony and Jerry Coleman this year, wants it banned, and he wants it banned in the name of Tony Gwynn.
In fact, Tony’s death has brought the idea of banning chewing tobacco in MLB back into the national spotlight, with dozens of articles written on the subject. I think it’s time. Players and coaches can do whatever they want on their own time, but they should keep it off the field and out of the dugout.
Baseball is a game that cherishes it’s traditions, but some things are better left in the past. The league’s relationship with tobacco is one of those things. Tony Gwynn’s legacy is secure, one of the finest hitters of all-time and an even better man. If he can also help bring an end to chewing tobacco in baseball, and help prevent people from suffering the way he did these last few years, that could end up being his finest contribution to the game.
The Vocal Minority posts on Mondays. Sometimes more than once. Follow me on Twitter.