Stephen Strasburg attempts to quit smokeless tobacco

"I was one of those kids that picked it up based on seeing ballplayers do it," Stephen Strasburg said about his smokeless tobacco habit.
"I was one of those kids that picked it up based on seeing ballplayers do it," Stephen Strasburg said about his smokeless tobacco habit. (The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011; 12:09 AM

Like any other high school kid, Stephen Strasburg wanted to emulate the major league baseball players he watched on television. He mimicked their actions down to the last detail. He rolled his pants up to reveal high socks, wore wristbands at the plate and, during downtime, opened tins of chewing tobacco and pinched some in his lower lip.

Years later, having developed a powerful addiction, Strasburg regrets ever trying smokeless tobacco. Last fall, Tony Gwynn - his college coach at San Diego State and one of those players he grew up idolizing - began radiation treatments for parotid cancer, a diagnosis Gwynn blamed on using smokeless tobacco.

In the wake of Gwynn's cancer diagnosis, Strasburg has resolved to quit smokeless tobacco while he recuperates from Tommy John surgery. He doesn't want to face the myriad health risks borne from tobacco use, and he doesn't want kids who want to be like him to see him with a packed lower lip. Strasburg conflates many activities with dipping, and he has yet to eradicate the habit. But he is determined he will.

"I'm still in the process of quitting," Strasburg, 22, said. "I've made a lot of strides, stopped being so compulsive with it. I'm hoping I'm going to be clean for spring training. It's going to be hard, because it's something that's embedded in the game."

Smokeless tobacco has long been entrenched in baseball. In the 1980s, wads of it bulged in batters' cheeks. More recently, tins of what players call "dip" form circular outlines on players' back pockets. Managers, players and coaches use it occupy time during the lulls of a game and to feel the rush of nicotine it provides, a momentary buzz of energy that many come to believe - erroneously - benefits their performance.

The habit carries a steep risk. Smokeless tobacco can lead to several forms of mouth cancer that require a series of disfiguring surgeries; many patients have their entire jaw removed. The juices swallowed contain heavy metals and can lead to esophageal and pancreatic cancer, two of the direst cancers to treat. White, precancerous lesions appear on the lips. Gums recede. Teeth become discolored and loosen.

"It's nasty stuff," said Gregory Connolly, a Harvard professor who has lectured major league players and testified before Congress on the ills of smokeless tobacco. "There's no other way to look at it."

For two decades, there has been a fight to educate players on the danger and eradicate smokeless tobacco from baseball, both for the health of players and for the health of children who watch and idolize them. Several congressional hearings, including one last April, have addressed the issue. Major League Baseball has urged players to not use it when on camera. Since 1993, all tobacco products have been banned in the minor leagues on fields, in clubhouses and during team travel. It's also banned in college and in every significant amateur association.

And yet, experts say, the usage among major league players has remained steady. Roughly 33 percent of major league players, Connolly said, use some form of smokeless tobacco, a rate that has remained stagnant. More dispiriting, its use has risen among young males. The only significant increase of any tobacco product over the last five years, according to Connolly and other advocates, has been the use of smokeless among youths. It has increased to 25 percent, compared with 16 percent of the general population.

"It hasn't changed that much," says Joe Garagiola, his voice dripping with a frustration bordering on depression. Garagiola, a former player and major league executive, chewed himself as a player in the '40s, believing, as so many players still do, that chewing tobacco is a rite of passage. He quit after his daughter asked if he was going to die. Later in life, he watched his friend Bill Tuttle, a former major leaguer, lose his jaw and then succumb to cancer caused by spit tobacco.

For two decades, Garagiola campaigned against smokeless tobacco in baseball. He gave speeches during spring training. He testified before Congress. At his home in Arizona, he keeps a box full of newspaper stories, fact sheets and advertisements for smokeless tobacco.

He still pleads with players to not put tins in their back pocket, a possible example for kids. The dearth of progress is difficult for him to bear.

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