Death of baseball star Tony Gwynn highlights danger of chewing t - KMSP-TV

Death of baseball star Tony Gwynn highlights danger of chewing tobacco

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WASHINGTON -

The baseball world is still reeling from the shocking death of Hall of Fame baseball player Tony Gwynn. The longtime San Diego Padres outfielder blamed his longtime habit of chewing tobacco for the oral cancer that killed him.

Some Washington Nationals players have tried to quit chewing in recent years. Stephen Strasburg has been among them. He was a close friend of Gwynn and played for him at San Diego State University.

We visited a ballfield in Northwest D.C. Tuesday afternoon and it was filled with young boys of summer enjoying the national pastime. And we spoke to John McCarthy, a former college player and founder of Home Run Baseball Camp in D.C. We asked him about chewing tobacco.

"It's a poison, it's a toxin,” he said. “I would never encourage a young person to put any tobacco in their mouth, whether it's smoking or dip or chew tobacco. That stuff's a poison."

And it is likely what killed Gwynn at age 54.

"Tony was probably addicted to it,” McCarthy said. “And he knew it was bad, but it tastes good. It's addictive, and next thing you know, you have a higher chance of getting some forms of cancer and it's tragic."

It is a sentiment echoed by Oncology Surgeon Kenneth Newkirk of MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

"I was very saddened to hear about his death,” said Dr. Newkirk. “I do think that there is a link between chewing tobacco and oral cancers and it's not surprising given his history that he developed what he did."

Dr. Newkirk specializes in head and neck surgery. He said carcinogens within the tobacco and its direct contact with the mouth are what can cause oral cancers in tobacco chewers.

“Some people think that their risks should be less because it's just chewing tobacco and that you don't have the same exposure that you're going to have with smoking tobacco. Unfortunately, that's just not the case,” he told us.

"It's part of the ritual of baseball -- whether it's chewing sunflower seeds or dip or gum,” said Coach McCarthy. “A lot of guys have whatever their little choice is."

Coach Mac said big leaguers use it as a distraction. It gives them an edge and helps them relax.

"They call it paralysis by analysis,” said McCarthy. “And Tony was good at not having that problem. Tony could really turn his brain off and compete and play smart baseball. But he didn't think about what he was doing. He just worked on his craft. You throw the ball here and I'm going to go there.”

“I think chewing tobacco might have helped try to distract himself a little bit and give yourself something to do besides think about how tough the game is."

Chewing tobacco is not as popular as it used to be and Major League Baseball banned it a few years ago for players during television interviews and from keeping it in their pockets.

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