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By The Numbers: Tony Gwynn And Smokeless Tobacco In Baseball

By Father Gabe Costa
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Our guest blogger this week is Connor Love, a student taking a sabermetrics course and a real connoisseur of the National Pastime. He writes about his favorite player, Tony Gwynn, and an extremely important, and somber, topic.

While there aren't many "numbers" in this installment of By The Numbers, I'm certain that this reflection will make you think.

Connor Love: Dip, chaw, snuff, chew, rub (or whatever you want to call it) has been a staple in Major League Baseball since the game was created. Players of all ages and sizes have spit (or gutted) the brown juices of tobacco while performing some of the most incredible plays or swings anyone as ever seen.  This description holds true with Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. As a lifetime Padres fan, I grew up wearing Tony Gwynn jerseys and falling asleep with a signed baseball on my bedside table. His play on the field captured my attention even at a young age.

As a lifetime .338 hitter, Gwynn totaled 3141 hits, 1,138 RBIs and only credited 434 strike outs to his name in a total of 10,232 plate appearances. In over ninety five percent of the time Tony stepped to the plate, he either made contact or walked. A contact hitter at heart, Tony never hit under .309 in a single full season. From these life time numbers, I think it would be safe to say that Tony Gwynn was one of the most successful players of his time. Personally, I can say he is my all time favorite. Yet during this illustrious twenty season career, Gwynn swung, ran, caught, and threw, with a "dip" in his mouth. Every game Gwynn started by throwing a pinch, or at times, a handful of chewing tobacco into his mouth. This practice was not, and still is not, considered abnormal in the game of baseball. From the sandlots to the big leagues kids, and men alike, play the game of baseball while chewing tobacco.

As a baseball player myself, I can say that I have tried chewing tobacco. While it made me sick to my stomach, for other young ball players it is as a part of the game as it was for Gwynn. Whether, it is peer pressure or the mystique that "the big leaguers do it", I have witnessed kids all from ages 14 and up throw in a "dip" while playing baseball. Recently, organized baseball has started taking a stand against the use of chewing tobacco. Currently, chewing tobacco is banned in NCAA baseball as well as the U.S. minor leagues. At the heart of these bans lies the proven danger that tobacco creates for the body. While the biological correlations between cancer and tobacco are outside the scope of this article, one cannot deny that there is a link between repeated tobacco use and cancer and other serious health issues.

For Tony Gwynn, his repeated use of chewing tobacco during his twenty year career has caused his recent struggles with mouth cancer. Starting in 2010, Gwynn has fought multiple bouts with oral cancer. In addition to weeks and weeks of radiation therapy Gwynn had multiple tumor removing surgeries that left the right side of his face motionless. Unfortunately, his cancer has returned once again. Despite his previous successful surgeries, Gwynn will once again enter the operating room to remove another cancerous tumor from his mouth. As a lifelong Padres fan, Gwynn has always been a symbol of success for the San Diego area. As the current coach of the San Diego State Aztecs, he will once again have to place baseball aside to focus on a fight with this dreaded disease. Gwynn in recent years, even despite his physical and mental pain, has taken his experiences in baseball and his addiction to chewing tobacco and decided to push for a change in Major League Baseball. With the help of many well known ex-baseball players, the discussion is now open on whether to ban chewing tobacco or not throughout Major League Baseball. Yet, despite the new found movement to end the use of tobacco in Major League Baseball, the players union has stood firm to their position of protecting a player's right to chew tobacco.

Personally I think the risk is too great to take the chance that a young ball player will make the "right" decision when he sees his favorite big leaguer chew tobacco. It is abundantly clear that aspiring ball players watch and admire the big leaguers and want to do what they do. For me the risk of cancer, and previous family experiences with cancer, will eliminate any urge to look like a big leaguer or give in to peer pressure.

While baseball as an institution has resisted change for years, banning smokeless tobacco from Major League Baseball is one change that I believe would positively benefit baseball as a whole.

Should MLB ban chew? Be heard in the comments below...

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