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Death of One of Baseball Best Hitters Reminds Us There's Nothing Charming About Dipping

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    NEWSLETTERS

    In 2012 Josh Hamilton helped nose-dive a promising Rangers’ season by deciding to stop using smokeless tobacco in the middle of pennant chase while spiraling into a prolonged, pronounced batting slump.

    Last season a father was caught by TV cameras sharing some “chew” with his son at a game in Arlington, and was blanketed with as “cute” as “corrupt.”

    Spitting is as much a part of baseball as hitting, and players with a big dip in their lip are hailed as macho men playing a man’s game.

    Oh yeah, and smokeless tobacco killed Tony Gwynn on Sunday at age 54.

    So next time you see a Ranger with a big chew in his cheek, cringe, don’t cheer. As much as we love the nuances of America’s favorite pastime, it’s time to admit — and act upon — the fact that cancer is stronger than baseball.

    Gwynn was one of my favorite players growing up. With refined skill over brute strength, he won eight batting titles, collected 3,000 hits and sweet-swung his way in the Hall of Fame. But all the while, the San Diego Padres’ star was committing slow suicide — seemingly harmless pinches of chew at a time.

    He died over the weekend way too young. Of salivary gland cancer. Caused by, yep, years of smokeless tobacco use.

    Growing up, the art of “dipping” was a way of life for my family in rural Johnson County. The men always had a dip of snuff in their lip, a spit cup handy, that trademark, worn-out circle in the back pocket of their Wranglers from the tobacco tin, and there was even a brass spittoon by grandpa’s favorite easy chair. I remember seeing Rangers’ pitcher Charlie Hough smoke a cigarette in the dugout. And I was thrilled when — after getting nauseous at the taste of the real stuff — Mom let me buy a pack of Big League Chew, the bubble gum version. It's still shocking to see manager Ron Washington lighting up a cigarette in the manager's office every now and then.

    But there’s nothing cute or charming about mouth cancer.

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smokeless tobacco contains 28 carcinogens and is a known cause of oral cancer. Though the habit has declined significantly since the mid-1990s, about 33 percent of minor league baseball players recently said they still dip. The rate of use has been flat since 2010, sending an alarming message that baseball “athletes” still don’t get the fact that smokeless tobacco is indeed tobacco.

    Baseball has taken tiny steps to curb the habit. Teams can’t provide smokeless tobacco products. Players are prohibited from having tobacco tins in their uniforms or any product in their mouth during interviews. The Players’ Union, however, didn’t altogether ban tobacco use from the field. And here we are.

    Players from Babe Ruth to David Ortiz have struggled with the habit. It’s nicotine — found naturally in the snuff — and it’s addicting. I get it.

    Hamilton showed us a couple of summers ago how physically stressful it is to stop using tobacco in the middle of the season.

    But Gwynn just reminded us of the alternative consequences.

    A native Texan who was born in Duncanville and graduated from UT-Arlington, Richie Whitt has been a mainstay in the Metroplex media since 1986. He’s held prominent roles on all media platforms including newspaper (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Dallas Observer), radio (105.3 The Fan) and TV (co-host on TXA 21 and numerous guest appearances, including NBC 5). He currently lives in McKinney with his wife, Sybil, and two very spoiled dogs.