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Despite Tony Gwynn’s death, Cubs can’t quit chewing tobacco

Updated: June 18, 2014 10:37PM



MIAMI — Cubs catcher John Baker, the former Padre who knew Tony Gwynn and appeared shaken by his death this week, said he thinks about quitting “all the time.”

But even after Gwynn lost his long battle against cancer related to his use of smokeless tobacco, players such as Baker wonder whether the wake-up call will ring loudly enough to cause players to quit the habit that always has been pervasive around major-league clubhouses.

“I think about it when I lay in bed at night how much I hate myself [for dipping],” Baker said. “I wish there was a better alternative that wasn’t gum.”

Maybe a third to half of Cubs players use smokeless tobacco. Several say Gwynn’s death makes them consider quitting.

“Absolutely,” said James Russell, who grew up around major-league clubhouses and whose father, Jeff, dipped. “Anytime you see something like that, it definitely makes you second-guess your choice of using tobacco or not.”

But Russell doesn’t think he’ll quit, at least not while he’s playing.

“For some reason, it’s tougher in the season,” he said. “During the offseason, I don’t do it as much.

“Obviously, my girlfriend and mom don’t really like it too much. My dad still dips to this day. We’ve tried cutting back and quitting at times. But just with the baseball culture, it’s kind of tough, I guess.”

Baseball has banned smokeless tobacco in the minor leagues, where players can be punished with fines. Major League Baseball tried to do it in the big leagues in 2011, but unionized players refused to agree. Instead, MLB instituted policies prohibiting teams from providing tobacco to players, and players can be fined for visibly using tobacco or displaying tins while doing televised interviews.

Despite declines in baseball over the years, dipping doesn’t seem likely to disappear anytime soon, even with such shocking reminders of the dangers as players got this week.

“I don’t think so,” said 24-year-old Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, a cancer survivor who doesn’t use tobacco. “It’s an addiction. Obviously, we’re all told what can happen. And obviously with Tony, it was the worst thing that happened, and it’s really upsetting. But I don’t think people will stop over it.

“Obviously, it can hurt you. But you don’t think you’re going to get hurt while you’re doing it.”

Like Russell, Baker and others say they rarely dip after the physically and mentally stressful season ends. And Russell said he figures he’ll quit after his career is over.

“Definitely if I’ve got kids around, too,” he said. “I don’t want my kid just coming and drinking out of my spit cup. It’s just trying to set a good example.”

Pitcher Justin Grimm, who gave up smokeless tobacco after vomiting the only time he tried it, said his friends who use “all say they wish they never would have started.”

He’s not sure, either, whether Gwynn’s death will lead to any real change in clubhouses.

“But I think it opens up a lot of eyes,” he said. “Hopefully, guys learn from it.”

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Twitter: @GDubCub



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