Tobacco use among MLB players is under scrutiny following Tony Gwynn’s death

There was a sheepishness in the Washington Nationals clubhouse Tuesday afternoon, even as players did what they do every day: walking from their lockers to trash cans, spitting out globs of brown saliva. Chewing tobacco has long been a tool in baseball — right alongside pine tar and resin — and this week will be no different, because guys will need their dip today, they’ll need it tomorrow, they’ll need it next year.

“It’s addicting,” said Bob Boone, who caught in the majors for 19 seasons and has worked in the Nationals’ front office since 2005.

This is not new news, though there is a new development: Tony Gwynn, the Hall of Fame outfielder for the San Diego Padres who simultaneously managed to be one of baseball’s best hitters and best people, died Monday of cancer at 54. Gwynn succumbed to cancer in his mouth and salivary glands, and he attributed that cancer to his two-decade habit of using smokeless tobacco.

“Nobody really knows,” said Nationals Manager Matt Williams, who played against Gwynn for years during his own career with the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks. “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.”

Major League Baseball has been thinking about that culture of smokeless tobacco for years and, in fact, has raised it as a point in collective bargaining negotiations. The players’ union has pointed out that the products are legal, and the decisions on whether to use or not are up to each individual player.

The products are banned in the minors, where players have no union to represent them. The latest contract between the league and the MLBPA, which runs through 2016, prohibits players from chewing tobacco during television interviews, with fines beginning after a third violation ($1,000) and running up to $5,000 for multiple infractions. Whereas chewing tobacco used to be offered like candy in major league clubhouses, clubs are no longer allowed to distribute the products — and, in fact, most dugouts contain racks of chewing gum during batting practices and games. The league and the union have worked together to provide education, counseling and annual oral examinations.

Gwynn’s death certainly struck a chord. Former major league outfielder Eric Byrnes, now an analyst for the MLB Network, wrote an impassioned entry on his blog describing his own struggles to give up chewing tobacco. Toronto Manager John Gibbons told reporters Gwynn’s death inspired him to quit.

And yet as the Astros and Nationals took batting practice Tuesday, several players did so with dips between their lip and gums — not that they wanted people to know.

“It’s just not something I want out there,” one player said. Right-hander Stephen Strasburg spoke emotionally about Gwynn, who coached him in college, to a gaggle of reporters. A Nationals spokesperson said before the interview that Strasburg would not field questions on chewing tobacco, which Strasburg uses — though as the Nationals’ pitchers took batting practice Tuesday, he chewed gum.

“There’s no one that could’ve told me to quit when I was playing,” said F.P. Santangelo, the color analyst for Nationals games on MASN who played seven big league seasons.

Santangelo said he first used chewing tobacco when he was 14 and didn’t quit until the day he retired — only because he made a promise to his then-wife. But in the intervening 26 years, he chewed every day.

“It’s like part of your ‘uni,’” Santangelo said. “It’s part of what you do on a daily basis. You have an at-bat; you take a dip. You get up in the morning; you have a cup of coffee; you take a dip. You get in your car to drive; you take a dip. I couldn’t drive anywhere without taking a dip. You finish a meal, you take a dip. It runs your life.”

One factor in the prevalence of smokeless tobacco is part of what defines life as a ballplayer.

“There’s a lot of down time,” Boone said, “and it really helps you pass the time.”

Boone, 66, said he gave up chewing tobacco 18 months ago when he was applying for a life insurance policy. But in his job now, as vice president of player personnel, he attends hundreds of baseball games a year, mostly throughout the Nationals’ minor league system. Last year, at a game in Class A Potomac, he sat with assistant general manager Doug Harris.

“Boring game,” Boone said. “And I was like, ‘Let me have some of that.’”

Monday night, after Gwynn passed, Boone was sleeping when he heard his phone buzz, the sound of incoming text messages. It was his sister-in-law, noting Gwynn’s own assessment of why he got cancer. “You have to quit,” the message read.

“I’ve had bad decisions I’ve made in my life, and a lot of them have been made public,” said Santangelo, who was named in the Mitchell Report on performance-enhancing drug use in baseball. “But the worst decision I’ve ever made is starting to dip tobacco.”

Barry Svrluga covers the Washington Redskins and golf.
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