- Odeen Domingo
- The Arizona Republic
He’s seen it. The hurt it could create. The damage it could cause.
Spit tobacco facts
Nicotine: a poisonous and highly addictive drug.
Carcinogens: cancer-causing agents.
Abrasives: wear down teeth and allow nicotine and other chemicals to get directly into blood system.
INCREASES THE RISK OF:
Mouth cancer: cancer of cheeks, gums, lips and tongue.
Throat cancer: cancer of the voice box and esophagus.
Heart disease: heart attacks, strokes and high blood pressure.
Dental diseases: stained teeth, tooth decay, receding gums and gum disease. Stomach problems: ulcers, increased bowel activity and stomach cancer.
Source: Saskatchewan Health and National Cancer Institute
Diamondbacks center fielder Steve Finley has seen it almost destroy his good friend Pete Harnisch. “It” is spit tobacco. It’s also commonly known as smokeless tobacco, chewing tobacco or dip. Whatever it’s called, it almost ended Harnisch’s career. Harnisch, a one-time All-Star pitcher who last pitched in the major leagues in 2001, was diagnosed with clinical depression in 1997 at the time when he was trying to quit a 13-year-old habit he knew was dangerous. So when Finley was asked recently to do commercials sponsored by the National Spit Tobacco Education Program (NSTEP), which is headed by Hall of Fame baseball announcer Joe Garagiola Sr., he didn’t hesitate. “(Garagiola) asked me if I’d be a part of (the anti-spit tobacco campaign) and help the organization,” said Finley, 39, a non-user. “It’s a bad habit . . . it caused a big brush in him (Harnisch). He tried to quit and in a year, quit cold turkey. It’s very addicting and cancer-causing in your mouth. It’s not very hard to get behind a cause like that.” Baseball banned spit tobacco for all minor league teams in 1994, but that’s not helping much.
“I think (the minor league ban) doesn’t work,” Diamondbacks head trainer Paul Lessard said. “I’ve seen it in spring training. The minor league guys that we had, those guys were excited that they got to use it. “Players use spit tobacco even though team trainers dispense information and have individual talks about the dangers of dipping. “There’s been a lot of awareness about it,” Lessard said. “But in those group settings, it’s almost like guys blow it off a little bit more.” The most recent survey by the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society (PBATS) and the Oregon Research Institute done in 2001 showed that 30.5 percent of major leaguers use spit tobacco. Lessard and Anaheim Angels head trainer Ned Bergert said the percentage of players who use it today is about the same.
The 30.5 percent figure is a reduction from PBATS’ 1998 survey that showed 38.5 percent of major leaguers dipped. Notable major leaguers who had public battles trying to cope with their spit tobacco addiction are perennial All-Stars Chipper Jones and Curt Schilling. Former Diamondbacks pitcher Schilling has battled the urge for much of his career, telling People magazine a couple of years ago: “It’s the most horrific, disgusting habit on the face of the earth … and if I don’t quit, it’s going to kill me. “Spit tobacco has been virtually synonymous with baseball. At the ballpark and on television, spectators can see players with wads of dip in their mouths or with a spit tobacco can in their pockets. “Kids think it’s a part of the game,” said Garagiola, 78, a Scottsdale resident who has been campaigning against dipping for over 20 years. “But we have to educate them that it’s not going to help your swing.”
The idea that dipping hasn’t declined much since the last survey doesn’t sit well with Garagiola, who through NSTEP had a program in place from 1997-2001 that included talks and oral cancer exams during spring training. “The players association asked me what the percentage was of getting cancer using spit tobacco -‘What is it, like one in a thousand?’ ” Garagiola said. “I said, ‘Go ask Ms. Tuttle about that. Her husband is the one in a thousand you’re talking about.’ ”
“Ms. Tuttle” is Gloria Tuttle Fischer, 66, widow of former major leaguer Bill Tuttle, who died at 69 in 1998. Bill Tuttle was diagnosed with oral cancer in 1993. Doctors said it came from his 37 years of chewing tobacco, a habit he started while playing with the Detroit Tigers. “He had seven surgeries,” Fischer said. “They removed half of his face. He had no jawbone, no teeth. The shortest surgery was nine and a half hours. He had a tube for two years that helped him breathe. For major league ballplayers, if it doesn’t hurt you, look what it does to your family.”
Spit tobacco users have an increased risk of developing oral cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Other effects are gum disease, gum recession and a nicotine addiction. Garagiola’s major campaign slogan is, “Smokeless does not mean harmless.” He said he would love to start up the education program again in the major league clubhouses with his own money if Major League Baseball asks him to. But now, he’s focusing on educating the younger generation.
“Most people think you have to start with the big-leaguers,” Garagiola said. “But you have to start with the kids (little league through high school), they’re the ones who will become major leaguers one day.”