Dodgers pitcher Josh Beckett was saddened but not shaken at a level some might think. He knew Tony Gwynn and was hit hard by the news Monday that Gwynn had died of cancer.
Yet, what had not really registered with Beckett was an element he shared with Gwynn — the use of smokeless tobacco.
“Probably not as much as it should,” Beckett said.
Gwynn blamed his mouth cancer on dipping smokeless tobacco throughout his 20-year Hall of Fame career for the San Diego Padres. Smokeless tobacco is banned in the minors and Major League Baseball no longer permits teams to make it available in clubhouses.
Yet, if its use has diminished in recent years, it still remains. Every clubhouse has players who take chewing tobacco and stuff it on the inside of cheeks, or use the snuff from a can and put it behind lips.
Beckett said he has been dipping since he was 17, but had not made the correlation of his smokeless tobacco use to Gwynn’s until asked late Monday. And neither did he suspect the news of Gwynn’s death would prove a turning point in his use.
“I could sit here and lie to you and tell you yes, but unfortunately it would be just a straight lie,” Beckett said.
“I’m addicted to it. It’s more than just the nicotine. It’s the oral fixation. I don’t think anyone does it just for the nicotine thing, or we’d probably all be on the [nicotine] patch.”
For many players, the use of smokeless tobacco becomes entwined with playing the game. It becomes difficult to imagine baseball without it.
Smokeless tobacco has been a sensitive subject for Angels left fielder Josh Hamilton, whose well-chronicled addiction to cocaine and alcohol led to a suspension from baseball from 2003 to 2005 and who has struggled for years with tobacco and caffeine use.
Twice during his career, long hitting slumps coincided with his quitting the use of smokeless tobacco.
“I’ve wrestled with this issue,” Hamilton said. “I have quit, then picked it back up. It’s tough. Not saying I couldn’t do it, because I’ve done it, and done it during the season, but it’s not an ideal place to quit. Being an alcoholic, I’m not going to go become a bartender and think I’m going to stay sober. It’s just tough, plain and simple.”
Most players who still use smokeless tobacco say they intend to quit, though not until out of the game. Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said he started chewing tobacco once he became a major league player, stopped when he retired and started dipping when he became a coach.
Mattingly said he stopped dipping about two years ago.
“I just stopped,” he said. “From your own health, you don’t want to take chances. Then from a role model standpoint, the TV is always on you and if you’re dipping, kids are seeing it. It just got to the point where I didn’t want to be that guy.”
Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire said he tried dipping once.
“First time I tried it I got sick, and that was the last time,” McGwire said.
Dodgers bench coach Tim Wallach has three sons who followed him into baseball, but none use smokeless tobacco. He played against Gwynn throughout his 17-year career and always marveled at Gwynn as a player.
“He was a guy that you almost felt like would look around the field and decide which hole he was going to hit,” Wallach said. “Everybody talks about slowing the game down, but it was almost like he could slow the ball down.”
Dodgers first base coach Davey Lopes coached Gwynn for eight seasons in San Diego.
“Me, coach Gywnn? At what, baserunning?” Lopes said. “We’re talking about one of the greatest hitters of all time.”
Said Angels Manager Mike Scioscia: “He had no peers as far as what he did in the batter’s box. He worked very hard at this game. And everything he did on the field pales in comparison to the type person he was.”
Dodgers outfielder Scott Van Slyke dips, as did — and still does — his father, former major league outfielder Andy Van Slyke.
“I like it,” he said. “The calming effect, something in your mouth, spitting. I don’t know. If I got to the point where I said enough is enough, I don’t see that being a problem.”
Said Beckett: “I don’t know why I started. It’s a bad habit. It’s horrible. If either one of my daughters wanted to dip, I’m going to tell them it’s a bad decision.
“This is really depressing.”