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June 24, 2014

Honor Gwynn by remembering where he went wrong

Tony Gwynn’s life is worth celebrating. He was a first-ballot Hall of Fame player with the San Diego Padres who owned a .338 lifetime batting average. He was an All-Star who didn’t require celebrity treatment.

Then there was the tragic side of Gwynn, who recently lost a four-year struggle with salivary gland cancer. Sadly, he attributed his fate to the many years he used chewing tobacco, a practice common among baseball players. It was a cruel end to a life that spanned 54 years.

Baseball has long glamorized the use of tobacco - whether a plug of the chewing variety, which players display as bulging lumps in their cheeks, or the finely-grained snuff that players wedge beside their jaws. Either results in near-constant spitting. It also provides the game its macho look.

Worse, the practice, beyond being filthy and uncouth, has served as a powerful marketing device for younger players to emulate. That's brought boys, especially the many who play on amateur teams, into close contact with hazardous products. Snuff and chewing tobacco sold in the United States contain carcinogens.

It’s fine when youth-league players study hitting styles preferred by the pros. Emulating their lifestyle choices involving tobacco is problematic.

A few years ago a group of U.S. senators sought the players union's support in asking Major League Baseball to ban tobacco use. The senators wrote:

“When players use smokeless tobacco, they endanger not only their own health, but also the health of millions of children who follow their example. An agreement would help the health of players and be a great gift to our young fans.”

Some advancements were worked out between MLB and its players, but mostly those were cosmetic. Teams were prohibited from providing tobacco products to players, and players were not allowed to carry tobacco tins in their uniform pockets or appear in televised interviews while smoking, dipping or chewing.

Other levels of baseball have prohibited the practice. Today tobacco use is banned in the minor leagues, and most college and high school teams play on tobacco-free campuses.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the practice has disappeared. Some players and coaches carry on, even though it's against the rules. Most try to disguise what they’re doing as chewing gum.

It’s a hard habit to eliminate because tobacco use is addictive, even at a young age, and some players credit it with their success on the field. Others see it as part of being cool. Teenage boys in good health see themselves as invincible anyway. Then there are those who think, “Well, it’s got to be better than smoking cigarettes.”

In 2012, 11.2 percent of high school boys used smokeless tobacco products, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC, American Cancer Society and others warn that smokeless tobacco causes cancers of the oral cavity, esophagus and pancreas. Risk factors increase with age. Treatment can be difficult, and mortality rates approach 50 percent. Those who don’t die often face disfigurement following surgery.

Some hope Gwynn’s death will shake players who continue to use tobacco products into quitting. His story gives coaches, parents and mentors another strong argument to make to young players about the hazards of mixing baseball with smokeless tobacco.

If alive, Gwynn likely would be the first to speak out about the dangers. He blamed tobacco for his health problems, which necessitated two surgeries. “Of course it caused it,” he said in an interview. “I always dipped on my right side.”

He paid a high price. “He suffered a lot. He battled,” his agent, John Boggs, told The Associated Press.

If Gwynn's warning makes it to high schoolers, perhaps some won’t start the practice and others will quit, sparing them his difficult, painful fate. If so, Tony Gwynn's legacy will not only be that of an All-Star ballplayer whose talents put him in a select group of legends. He'll also be remembered on an honored list of true lifesavers.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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