The Harsh Reality Surrounding The Death Of Tony Gwynn

In Baseball, Blog by Eric ByrnesLeave a Comment

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.