Tony Gwynn, too worn from his four-year struggle with oral cancer to do more, was able to contribute a simple message to a film aimed at educating baseball players.
“If you aren’t using spit tobacco, please don’t start,” a voice says, quoting Gwynn, in the five-minute film that was completed June 13, three days before the Hall-of-Fame outfielder died at age 54. “And if you are using, try to quit. If not for yourself, then do it for the people you love.”
The San Diego Padres, for whom Gwynn played his entire 20-year Major League Baseball career, will hold a public memorial for the eight-time National League batting champion tomorrow at Petco Park in San Diego.
The film, produced by the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society, known as PBATS, also commemorates Gwynn. Created after a spring-training survey found that about 33 percent of players throughout the major and minor leagues are spit tobacco users, it will be shown throughout the sport. It won’t be released publicly yet because it was intended for internal use within baseball.
PBATS contacted Gwynn in late February to ask if he’d participate in the film, according to Neil Romano, a senior adviser to the 31-year-old nonprofit that works to educate baseball trainers. Since 2010, Gwynn had been outspoken in his belief that dipping tobacco directly caused his salivary gland cancer, as the disease developed in the exact spot in his mouth that he placed the tobacco.
“He said, ‘I would love to help but I don’t have the energy or strength,’” Romano said of the interest Gwynn expressed, through his agent, in participating in the film. “We had to have someone else voice it. He really couldn’t do it. He couldn’t do anything.”
Salivary gland cancer hasn’t definitively been linked to smokeless tobacco use. Romano attributes the uncertainty to insufficient funding for studies on the disease.
Gwynn, who retired in 2001 with a .338 career batting average, took a leave of absence as coach at San Diego State University, his alma mater, in April.
“I had a concept of how bad he was when he could no longer coach,” said Romano, who with former major-leaguer Joe Garagiola founded the National Spit Tobacco Education Program, known as NSTEP, in 1994. “He probably would rather have had both his legs taken off than not coach anymore.”
By their final months, many people fighting oral cancer have gone through somewhere from 35 to 50 surgeries, often to remove jaw or cheek bones, Romano said.
“It is, in my mind, the most disfiguring, awful cancer,” he said. “And in the last year, there’s often very little ability to even understand them anymore.”
More than 40,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer yearly in the U.S., and only half will be alive five years later, according to U.S. health officials.
Baseball bans smokeless tobacco in the minor leagues. MLB and its players’ union agreed to rules during 2011 labor negotiations that now keep it out of view at major-league ballparks and on television. While MLB Commissioner Bud Selig publicly stated his wish to see it fully banned in the majors, the Major League Baseball Players Association doesn’t agree, instead focusing on education. It said in a statement after Gwynn’s death that it “continues to discourage the use of smokeless tobacco products by its members or by anyone else.”
Gwynn’s death already has prompted Arizona Diamondbacks relief pitcher Addison Reed to give up smokeless tobacco use, according to MLB.com. Reed, who played for Gwynn at San Diego State, threw out the seven tins of tobacco he kept in his locker and the two he had in his car, the website said.
The sport has had moderate success raising awareness of the dangers. About half of players throughout the game were users 20 years ago, compared to the current figure of one-third, according to PBATS data. And though 49 percent of prospects are currently spit tobacco users before signing their first pro contract, that figure drops to 33 percent by the time they get to the big leagues.
“It tells us that the policies in the minor leagues are very effective,” Romano said.
While overall statistics on spit-tobacco usage shows declines after prospects become pros, that’s not the case for Latin players. They’re generally less likely to have used at an early age because of their socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, and often they take up the habit in order to fit in with their new teams, Romano said.
Romano said he and Garagiola have befriended a diverse group of oral cancer sufferers in the two decades since the NSTEP program was created, from major-leaguers like Gwynn to high-schoolers who used spit tobacco for just a few years.
“We’ve buried 11 people,” Romano said.