The summer of 1968 was the year of the pitcher. The summer of 1998 was the year of the home run chase. The summer of 2006 was the year of the rookie pitcher. You can coin the summer of 2014 as the year of kicking the can — the can of Copenhagen, that is.
The dangers of chewing tobacco — a longtime staple in professional baseball culture — were brought to light in June when baseball legend Tony Gwynn lost his battle with oral cancer. This ailment came after years and years of using chewing tobacco, eventually claiming the life of the baseball Hall of Famer.
The case for baseball to collectively kick the habit escalated Wednesday morning with Curt Schilling, who won 216 games as a starting pitcher in the major leagues, disclosing his battle with cancer of the mouth. The cause of the illness?
“I’ll go to my grave believing [chewing tobacco] was why I got [oral cancer],” Schilling said during the NESN/WEEI Jimmy Fund Radio Telethon.
Schilling’s battle required chemotherapy and radiation. He needed a feeding tube inserted. He spent six months in the hospital. The disease has stripped Schilling of his salivary glands, costing the 47-year-old of his sense of taste and smell. He’s lost 75 pounds since his diagnosis, taking the big man known for his bigger-than-life persona who led the fledgling Arizona Diamondbacks to the 2001 World Series then erasing the Boston Red Sox‘ 86-year World Series drought in 2004 and reducing him to a frail, soft-spoken man.
This all likely stems from a 30-year relationship with smokeless tobacco. It’s a problem Schilling wrestled for years and an issue baseball continues to wrestle to this day. The issue is talked about but not nearly as brought to light as it needs to be.
Well, if Gwynn’s death didn’t advance the issue, the story of Schilling should bring it to the forefront of the all discussions surrounding the sport of baseball. Two baseball figures of note — one in the Hall of Fame, another who could end up in Cooperstown within the next few years — suffering the lasting effects of something that has hamstrung the culture of baseball. One is dead, and the other’s life is significantly altered as a result.
It’s the equivalent of notable retired NFL players coming out in recent years and sharing the effects of years upon years of ignoring head injuries. The issue came to the forefront with the wheels rolling on the discussion as a result.
Baseball has combated the issue to an extent, banning smokeless tobacco from clubhouses and dugouts throughout minor league baseball. But it’s clear that more action needs to be taken, as many players continue to dip throughout MLB. A major league ban was proposed in 2011 during negotiations for the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, but it was shot down by the player’s association, though tobacco is no longer provided to players by teams.
But that hasn’t negated players from using. The Boston Globe surveyed 58 Red Sox players in March during the team’s spring training, 21 admitting to using smokeless tobacco. Red Sox manager John Farrell admitted to still using chewing tobacco from time to time. Two Red Sox minor leaguers, Drake Britton and Bryce Brentz, admitted to dipping in the minors despite the ban.
For many players, it’s part of their routine, a vital piece of the performance of many baseball players. Josh Hamilton was among the best players in baseball in July 2012, then playing for the Texas Rangers, when he quit chewing tobacco. He’s never been the same since, despite resorting back to dipping in 2013 with the Los Angeles Angels.
Whether a ban is needed or not is up for debate. A strong case can be made that the players at the major league level are grown men capable of making decisions for themselves; if they choose to chew while knowing the consequences, it’s to their own detriment.
But that doesn’t mean more education on the issue isn’t needed. The league can still continue to encourage players to stay away from the stuff and try to get players to quit.
It’s been proven time and time again that more times than not tragedy is required to get an issue to the forefront. The trials and tribulations of Gwynn and Schilling appear to prove that theory yet again.
Now it’s time for MLB to act. It’s your move, Rob Manfred.