One of my best memories in more than 25 years as a journalist has nothing to do with the Super Bowls, World Series or NCAA tournaments that I’ve been privileged to cover.
It doesn’t involve the Rose, Sugar, Orange or Fiesta bowls. It isn’t the Kentucky Derby, NBA All-Star game or PGA events with Tiger Woods. It didn’t take place at Wrigley Field, Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium.
All of those were tremendous, unforgettable experiences. But another recollection that stands out is going to Tony Gwynn’s house.
I was in San Diego on assignment for USA Today Baseball Weekly in the mid-1990s. Gwynn wasn’t the subject of my story but an incredible opportunity presented itself via a friend, veteran Southern Cal journalist Brad Turner, who was at the ballpark. A San Diego State alum like Gwynn, Turner was buddies with the eight-time batting champion.
He asked if I was interested in accompanying him to Gwynn’s house that evening. Duh, of course! He got Gwynn’s OK and I was there several hours later. I met Gwynn’s lovely wife, Alicia, marveled at his impressive memorabilia collection and engaged in a leisurely conversation with one of baseball’s greatest hitters ever. It made for a nice story.
I can’t remember if he dipped tobacco that evening.
Now that he’s dead from oral cancer at 54, I wish baseball had banned the practice during his 20-year Hall of Fame career.
Baseball took small steps but came up short when it signed its current labor agreement with the players’ union in 2011. The measures were largely cosmetic, mandating that smokeless tobacco be kept out of view from fans and TV cameras. That’s why we no longer see those easy-to-distinguish cans in back pockets.
But when it came to banning the product altogether — which has been the case in the minor leagues since 1993 — the union objected. Instead, it agreed to mandatory oral exams during spring training, as well as an extensive education campaign and cessation support system.
I can imagine how some of those exams go:
Doctor: “I’m concerned about this area where you put your tobacco. You’re at risk for oral cancer and you should stop.”
Player (reaching for his tin while walking away): “OK. Thanks, doc.”
Addictions aren’t broken that easily, especially not in a culture where tobacco is as ingrained as sunflower seeds and bubble gum. Having a ban in the minors, but not the majors, simply means users cheat or find workarounds until they’re called up, where they’re free to dip and chew at will.
Commissioner Bud Selig saw the resistance and relented on a major-league ban in 2011. The union’s former executive director, the late Michael Weiner, said back then: “Our members understand that this is a dangerous product, there are serious risks associated with using it. Our players felt strongly that those were appropriate measures to take but that banning its use on the field was not appropriate under the circumstances.”