The Harsh Reality Surrounding The Death Of Tony Gwynn

In Baseball, Blog by Eric Byrnes16 Comments

As we celebrate the life and legacy of Tony Gwynn,  I can’t help but think that we lost one of the greatest players and most brilliant minds that ever played the game way too soon.  The reality of the situation is that Tony Gwynn died from oral cancer most likely caused by years of chewing tobacco.  On the surface,  it makes one believe that Gwynn’s death very easily could have been prevented.  Habitually, I chewed tobacco for nearly 15 years.   I can tell you with great conviction, there would have been nothing easy about it.

I took my first chaw of Red Man tobacco when I was 12 years old.  I took my first dip of Copenhagen when I was 16.  By the time I was 22 and playing professional baseball, I began chewing nearly a can a day.  When I woke up in the morning,  I would have a cup of coffee, then put in a dip.  After breakfast, I would put in a dip.  After my workout, I would put in a dip.  After Lunch, I would put in a dip.  When I got to the ballpark, I would put in a dip.  During batting practice, I would put in a dip.  When the game started, I would put in a dip. After each at bat, I would put in a dip.  On the way home from the ballpark, I would put in a dip.  What started as something I would do to pass time turned into a full blown addiction.  To this day, chewing tobacco is the only thing I have ever encountered in my life that I had absolutely no control over.  In a sense, I was helpless.

Throughout the course of my entire baseball career, MLB did a very nice job of warning players about the dangers of smokeless tobacco. During spring training every year, it was mandatory for all players to watch a video that detailed the harsh reality of all off the health risks associated with chewing tobacco.  I didn’t quit.

My dentist and life long family friend, Len Vinci, still sends me articles and personally lectured me on several occasions about chewing tobacco.  I didn’t quit.

Joe Garagiola, whom I have as much respect for as anybody in baseball, has led a public charge against chewing tobacco for years.  He pulled me aside several times when I was with the Diamondbacks encouraging me to give up the potentially deadly habit.  I didn’t quit.

With tears in her eyes, my own mother pleaded for me to stop.  I didn’t quit.

At no point was I dumb enough to think that I was invincible or immune to the potential dangers.  I didn’t quit because I couldn’t. Copenhagen had become such a big part of my life.  Like air, food or water,  I felt like I needed chewing tobacco to survive.  I never denied my addiction, it just took me a while until I finally did something about it.

March 2, 2011 my Dad unexpectedly passed away.  Over the course of the following weeks,  my chewing tobacco use hit an all time high. After the service on St. Patricks day, March 17th, 2011,  I sat back in a lounge chair in my back yard, looked up to the stars, then fired in the fattest pinch of Copenhagen I could possibly fit into my mouth.  That was the last dip that I ever took.

Why then? I don’t exactly know.  I didn’t plan for it to be.  I didn’t tell anybody I was going to stop or that I even wanted to stop.  I just did. At the time, I had a 2 year old, a 1 year old and my wife was pregnant with our 3rd child.  I do know that I realized I was no longer living life just for myself.  Sometimes it takes a tragic event in somebody’s life for that person to make a major life altering decision. Unfortunately, I had to deal with the tragic event.  Fortunately, I finally made the life altering decision.

It has been 3 years since I last took a dip of Copenhagen.  There is not a single day that goes by that I don’t think about it.  Every time I finish a meal, take a long drive, step on a golf course or a baseball field, it is on my mind.   I am not a quitter, I never have been and I never will be.  I simply have stopped.  I am not going to chew tobacco today.  Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute is the only way I have been able to get through the most difficult battle of my entire life.

I am not writing this as a PSA to get try to get people to stop chewing tobacco because I know it’s not possible.  There is nothing I or anyone else can say or do that will get you to stop.  I am simply telling you my experience with one of the most addictive and deadly vices in the world.  Take it however you want.  Ultimately it is your decision, ultimately it is your life.


  1. Hi Eric,

    Excellent post. A must-read. I hope it gets as much publicity as possible.

  2. As a former MiLB player, this blog is dead on. Great piece Byrnesy!

  3. I stopped Super Bowl Sunday of this year. My wife turned 40 and she has been asking me to stop for years. I gave her this as a present. I agree. I think about it when I golf, eat, and drink. I am also living for 3 others. Toughest thing I have ever done.

  4. Eric, a very moving piece. Having battled addiction myself I understand what you graphically portrayed. Whether it is tabacco, alcohol, opiates, speed, or food, it is all difficult, our own personal hell. You are my hero! I follow your ironman exploits!! And even though the best I can do is spin class or a short bike ride. It is something. And it’s a beginning, even though I’m 63! You are inspiring. And we both are alive! Today.

  5. Great blog! I’ll do what I can in my small sphere of influence to share this. Too many high school baseball players think it’s still ok…after all, it’s not “drugs or alcohol”. Maybe they’ll take to heart the words spelled out on this page.

  6. Eric, I read this and thought I wrote it. 16 years of a tin and a 1/2 a day. I haven’t dipped now in 18 years and I honestly rarely think about it and when I do I have no craving except an irrational connection to my youth. I wish I would have known I would ultimately feel this way that while ikicking it. Everyone decides for their own reasons. I didn’t really do it for my beautiful kids (now college men) or my beautiful wife or because I was afraid. For me, I despised being chained to it and love the absolute physical and mental freedom from that monster. Peace.

  7. Eric, great piece. 14 years ago I heard Joe Garagiola’s piece on chewing tobacco. My daughter heard me telling my wife about it. That same night I went in her room to kiss her goodnight. She said she didn’t want a goodnight kiss from a daddy that was going to lose hislip cuz of bacco. That was the defining moment. I dumped out a fresh can and stopped. I had stopped for 12 years, since started again. This blog has me thinking it might be time to stop. Thanks again Brynsee

  8. Awesome piece Eric. I stopped using nicotine on 7/21/2008. Once you get on the right side of addiction, you really get the full appreciation of how mainstream society doesn’t understand nicotine addiction and instead refers to it as “a nasty habit”. I still get the occasional trigger as you described, but you said it best – “I’m not going to chew tobacco today” – One day at a time, that’s how we beat our addictions.

    1. This blog has been a huge influence factor to me as well as the varied comments. At what age you picked up the habit.
      I have quit, 2 years back.

  9. Eric, I listened to you talking about this on the Radio and I just now read your whole article. This is me to a T and I am currently battling with quitting. You stated it exactly how it is and those that don’t do it just don’t understand how gripping of a drug it is on you. It amazing that at a time of sadness you overcame this and I salute you for that. Thanks for taking the time to write this and hopefully some of these words you wrote that are so close to home will finally sink in for me.

  10. Dear Eric,
    I am so proud of my all time favorite Baseball player writing such a great article about Tony Gwynn and your own addiction to chewing tobacco. I would hope that MLB would take note and be more instrumental in banning the use of this carcinogenic product. The youngsters that idolize you guys are so quick to want to do as you do as they watch you perform on the field, whether it be spitting, holding up a hand while digging in at the plate, or even trying to emulate your having something stuffed on the inside of your mouth! Your article should definitely wake up a lot of people………hopefully some of your old teammates!
    Keep up the great things you are doing, Eric, and my best to your beautiful family.

  11. Eric, you wrote it perfectly. Can I link this article to my website for quitting chewing tobacco?

    Im a triathlete, I have had a hard time with this crap. You passed me in Laquinta, the day you lost your watch.

    Let me know, I think you said it perfectly

  12. This article has given me a fresh lease of life. It has been two years since I quit smokeless tobacco.

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