Old traditions die hard in baseball, but it's to Major League Baseball's credit that it's been willing to kill off traditions that have outstayed their welcomes.
Like when MLB urged umpires to automatically eject head-hunting pitchers in 2001, or, more recently, when it placed a limited ban on home plate collisions. Both were baseball customs with deep roots, but MLB knew they had to go.
Now it should be smokeless tobacco's turn. Ballplayers have been dipping for as long as there have been ballplayers, but it's time for the league to kick the habit.
If anything, it's past time. By at least a week.
It was last week, of course, that we lost Hall of Famer and San Diego Padres legend Tony Gwynn far too soon. He passed away on June 16 at the age of 54 following a battle with salivary gland cancer.
The mark Gwynn made as a hitter—encapsulated by a .338 career average and eight batting titles—is the crown jewel of his legacy. He also made a profound mark as a person, as you could search far and wide for a negative testimony about Gwynn as a teammate, friend or coach and still come up empty.
But Gwynn's legacy shouldn't be complete just yet. His death has put baseball's smokeless tobacco problem in the spotlight, and it should be what ends the problem once and for all.
As ESPN's Tom Friend chronicled in 2011, Gwynn had a bad dipping habit his whole career. He experienced the first of several growths in his mouth in 1991 and began battling cancer in 2010.
“I haven’t discussed that with the doctors yet, but I’m thinking it’s related to dipping,” Gwynn told The San Diego Union-Tribune's Bill Center.
It couldn't be proven at the time that Gwynn was right. It still can't, as Matt McCarthy noted in a piece for Deadspin that dipping "hasn't actually been linked to the type of cancer that killed Tony Gwynn."
It is, nevertheless, certainly plausible that Gwynn's habit is what ultimately killed him.
Cancer.org will vouch that smokeless tobacco has been linked to numerous types of cancer, including cancer of the mouth, tongue, cheek, gums and throat. And while the knowledge of the cancer risk that comes with dipping has grown, it's not anything new.
You can look back to 1986 and find the press wagging its finger at ballplayers for having such a self-destructive habit. Baseball eventually responded to mounting pressure by banning all tobacco in the minor leagues in 1993.
And then the league was given its first big cautionary tale.
That was Bill Tuttle. After a nearly 40-year dipping habit that included an 11-year run in the majors in the 1950s and 1960s, Tuttle required surgeries that, per The New York Times's Claire Smith, involved "removing his cancer-ridden right cheek, right jaw, teeth, taste buds as well as parts of his throat and neck."
Joined by his wife, Gloria, and former major leaguer Joe Garagiola, the (nearly faceless) Tuttle went on a tour of major league clubhouses to warn players of the dangers of dipping in 1996.
"Million-dollar players would come up with tears in their eyes and cans of tobacco in their hands and they would say, 'I want you to throw this away for me,' " Gloria Tuttle told The New York Times's Richard Goldstein in 1998.
That was also the year Tuttle died. Maybe that could have been baseball's cue to act. But with smokeless tobacco still ingrained in baseball's culture 16 years later, Tuttle's death obviously wasn't powerful enough to get the job done.
Tony Gwynn's death, however, could be.
In fact, MLB superstar Stephen Strasburg—who played for Gwynn at San Diego State University—has publicly announced, per MLB.com's Bill Ladson, he is quitting the awful habit. It's a start, and hopefully the beginning of a positive trend.
There's no need to tell MLB that smokeless tobacco needs to go.
As noted by Seth Livingstone of USA Today, baseball was seeking a ban on dipping when the next collective bargaining agreement was being discussed in 2011. There was pressure coming from Washington, D.C., and Commissioner Bud Selig was on board.
"No. 1, watching guys spit in the dugouts is not exactly a great thing to watch," Selig said. "But, more importantly, if you knew the health consequences, they're huge."
Selig obviously was (and still is) right on the second point. He's right on the first point, too. For all the beautiful sights baseball can offer, a player spitting out a stream of sickly brown goop isn't one of them.
But it's not just an ugly sight. It's been noted—for example, by Maury Brown in a piece for Forbes—that the league is worried about kids picking up dipping from watching baseball. It may sound like an eyeroll-worthy "Won't somebody please think of the children!" concern, but it is nonetheless a valid concern.
"I was one of those kids that picked it up based on seeing ballplayers do it," Strasburg told The Washington Post in 2011. "It's not a good thing, and I don't want to represent myself like that."
Note Strasburg's choice of words. Not "a kid," but "one of those kids."
And yet no ban happened in 2011. The league pushed, but the MLB Players Association pushed back. Per The Associated Press, via ESPN.com, the final compromise only called for players not to keep chewing tobacco in their pockets, and also for them not to use it in pre- and postgame interviews or at team functions.
Rather than pushed out of the game, dipping was merely pushed out of sight.
Then-union head Michael Weiner, who also passed away too young last November, said in 2011 the players felt that banning dipping "was not appropriate under the circumstances."
When John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle checked in with current union chief Tony Clark, he found that the union is still content to focus on "player education" in regards to smokeless tobacco rather than a ban.
No wonder. There are players who, like Strasburg, aren't proud of their dipping habits. But there's also an attitude of defiance among others.
San Francisco Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt summed this attitude up well to Seth Livingstone in 2011:
Come on, that's a joke...I know there's a lot of young and impressionable minds out there, and we have a responsibility, but still. Whatever we do is not going to keep smokeless tobacco from being sold. Does it cause bodily harm? Yes. But we are grown men. They have to make their own decision.
No doubt it was this stance that propped up the union's push against the tobacco ban in 2011. With the next CBA due up for 2016, the best hope of getting a tobacco ban is this stance softening.
With Gwynn's passing, that could happen.
Arizona Diamondbacks reliever and former San Diego State Aztec Addison Reed had an extreme reaction to his old coach's passing, as Steve Gilbert of MLB.com reported Reed threw out all the chew that he had and quit on the spot.
That makes it at least one person in uniform who's been hit hard enough by Gwynn's death to stop dipping. Elsewhere, others have been hit hard enough to at least look in the mirror.
“This is more about Tony Gwynn and it’s a sad situation,” Detroit Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson told The Detroit News. “But it definitely brings some awareness.”
And Chicago Cubs reliever James Russell, speaking to the Chicago Sun-Times: "Anytime you see something like that, it definitely makes you second-guess your choice of using tobacco or not.”
And Nationals manager Matt Williams, speaking to The Washington Post: “Nobody really knows yes or no or maybe. But of course it does [make you think]. It hits home with a lot of folks, and it’s been part of our sport for a long time. But it certainly does make you think.”
All this means there's hope. The defiant attitude of players toward chewing tobacco got in the way of the ban MLB wanted in 2011. In the wake of Gwynn's death, that attitude may be softening.
Smokeless tobacco has been a baseball staple for so long that it's hard to picture the game without it. But given its sheer unsightliness and the health hazard it presents to current and future players, the time has come for baseball to accept a life without it as soon as possible.
Nobody knows for sure if it's what Gwynn would want, but it's certainly how baseball can do right by him.
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