June 17, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Tony Gwynn's death sobers up Tigers to chewing tobacco's hazards

Detroit – As the news of Tony Gwynn’s death at age 54 spread through the Tigers clubhouse Monday, J.D. Martinez leaned over to teammate and fellow outfielder Austin Jackson.

“I said it kind of joking around but I was like, ‘See that? That’s why you have to stop,’” Martinez said. “And he was like, ‘You don’t see one in today do you? I’m not doing it today.”

Gwynn said his longtime use of chewing tobacco, or dip as it’s commonly referred to, contributed mightily to the oral cancer that ultimately killed him. Jackson, among the many Tigers who use dip, said Gwynn’s death shook him.

“It definitely does,” Jackson said. “That’s young for this lifetime, so it gives you awareness.”

But is Gwynn’s too soon death enough to get players to quit?

“That can make anybody quit,” Jackson said.

Whether it makes Jackson quit remains to be seen. He wouldn’t say one way or the other.

“This is more about Tony Gwynn and it’s a sad situation,” Jackson said. “But it definitely brings some awareness.”

Pitcher Rick Porcello has been using dip since he was drafted by the Tigers in 2007. It doesn’t sound like he’s ready to quit just yet.

“Out of respect for what just happened, I really don’t want to comment,” he said. “But I will say this: We are all grown men and we are all aware of the risks of chewing tobacco, and many other things that you can put into your system and harm yourself.

“It’s just a matter of how much you value that.”

Major League Baseball does not ban the use of dip on the field, but it does not allow teams to provide it for players or have it on display in the players’ lockers. Jim Schmakel, Tigers equipment manager since 1979, has a July 2001 memo from Major League Baseball taped to the wall in his office forbidding teams from buying tobacco products for players.

“I don’t supply tobacco products to players whatsoever and I haven’t since that date,” he said. “Prior to that date, I supplied a lot.”

Asked if players used less dip today, Schmakel said, “I would say it’s somewhat less compared to the ’80s and ’90s. But there are still a lot of guys that do it…Usage hasn’t dropped significantly.”

Some players will never quit. Others have quit or never started. Martinez and third baseman Nick Castellanos are in the latter group.

“I never had any interest in it,” Martinez said. “I tried it once in high school and I was just over it right away. But I had heard a lot about it in high school and I was told the consequences, so I was aware of it and I think that helped.

“It sucks that it happened to Tony, one of the best players ever, but I think it will make a lot more people aware of the consequences.”

Said Castellanos: “When I was younger, I tried it twice and threw up twice. That was pretty much the end of my dipping or chewing tobacco experience. I guess that just supports what everybody says, which is this product can kill you.

“I think everybody knows someone who's dipped forever and nothing's happened to them, so you feel like why is it going to happen to me? It's extremely unfortunate that baseball lost a man like Tony Gwynn, but hopefully kids coming up can see that chewing tobacco is dangerous and maybe his death can improve people being against chewing tobacco."

Besides those who won’t quit and those who never started, there is a large group of players who want to quit but are having great difficulty breaking the habit. Pitcher Phil Coke is among that group.

“I have dipped for a while until recently when my daughters were born,” he said. “I have really pulled back from doing it. It hasn’t been an easy thing to do for me. When they say it’s addictive, they are not kidding.”

Gwynn’s death will motivate Coke to keep fighting.

“You look at it and see he was 54 years old,” he said. “I mean, that’s in 22 years for me. That really makes you think about what you are doing.”

Coke, who doesn’t use dip on the mound when he pitches, said he has had long stretches where he doesn’t use it and then a couple of bad stretches where he relapses.

“If you are in a stressful situation, all of a sudden for no good reason, you find yourself with a can (of dip) in your hand,” he said. “It’s really strange. I never experienced anything like it.”

Using dip has become such a staple of his routine, he will find himself reaching for it without even thinking about what he’s doing.

“I found myself getting a full tank of gas, walking inside, getting a can and walking out like nothing happened,” Coke said. “Next thing I know I have a dip in my mouth for 20 minutes. I’m like, ‘How did I do that? It’d been a month since I had one.’”

The recent death of his grandmother brought on another unintended relapse.

“That was one those situations where I was like, ‘What am I doing? How did I get to this point,’” he said.

Coke said Gwynn’s death won’t necessarily alter players’ habits regarding chewing tobacco, but it will raise awareness.

“It’s going to make more people think about it individually,” he said. “And I think it gives (the campaign against it) a lot more power nationally, without question. And it should.”

Martinez applauded Major League Baseball for its efforts to educate players about the effects of tobacco, starting at the high school, college and minor league levels. He hopes Gwynn’s death will be a catalyst to intensify those efforts.

“It (awareness program) was there before Tony died but because of what happened to Tony, it’s going to blow it up even more,” he said. “Everyone wants to ask the question -- how did he die at 54? Well, here you go. Here’s the reason. It sucks. It’s terrible.”

Chris McCosky on Twitter @cmccosky

'I found myself getting a full tank of gas, walking inside, getting a can and walking out like nothing happened,' Tigers relief pitcher Phil Coke says about chewing tobacco's addictiveness. 'Next thing I know I have a dip in my mouth for 20 minutes.' / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News