Editor's note: This story contains graphic language.
"These patches of white, irritated flesh here and here," says the guy in front of us, waving a laser pen at PowerPoint slides, "that's Leukoplakia. Remember what that looks like. If you have it on your cheeks or gums, it can lead to mouth cancer. It's bad, and you don't want it."
"It can do this to you."
The next slide is the face of some poor bastard who had half his skull chopped out as a result of mouth cancer. It's a still shot, with all the grizzly bits lit up by an unnecessary flash from the camera that took it. The eyes are red and flat. Deep contrasting shadows in the hanging masses of cheek flesh. Scars on top of scars. A sheen off the tube at his throat. No hair. No eyebrows. No hope in the lens-flared eyes.
It's a mutant. Had to be. Frankenstein's monster. Something you'd see in a horror flick. An abomination born of man's flirtation with radioactivity come to punish us for our sins.
The room is gripped by silence as the monstrosity stares us down. Then, suddenly, the discreet, unmistakable hollow report of spit going into an empty plastic bottle echoes across the room.
"Jesus Christ, man! How you gonna dip right in front of this guy?" says a minor leaguer sitting next to the discreet dipper.
We'd all been wrangled into the lunch hall for the mandatory meeting on substance abuse, one of many we minor leaguers would go through before spring training's conclusion.
"What?" asks the dipper. "I'm a fucking addict, man. I dip. They show this stuff every year and we still dip. They show vaginas with herpes and gonorrhea every year, too, and we're still out there getting tail. Think of how many people play this game for a living and how many of them are dying from this stuff" -- spits in bottle -- "it is what it is, man. You're more likely to die on the trip to the clubhouse than from this shit."
The stats say the number of smokeless tobacco abusers in baseball is down. It probably is. But it's not going to go away. (And in case you're wondering, I never used the stuff.) Even if they exhumed Tony Gwynn's body and paraded it around as evidence for the horrors of abusing the substance, baseball players will still dip, and more young players will start dipping because of those players who remain dippers.
You can show them all the cooking brains on drugs, vacant jaw lines and dead heroes you want -- addictions don't make sense, and as long as the drugs are still available, expect people to use them -- especially if people in high power, high prestige occupations keep using the stuff.
Let's be honest, most of the rules Major League Baseball has about substance abuse are in place not to protect the player, but to protect the industry. It says it wants a clean reputation. It says it wants a cheater-free game. But what it really wants is the look and feel of an organic baseball experience that reflects the culture's values without actually having to reflect the culture's values.
Baseball has never really been about the greater good. If it were, those players who do copious amounts of performance-enhancing drugs would be out of the game forever. Juiced-up hitters wouldn't serve vacation sentences and then sign multimillion-dollar contracts. And you wouldn't see an ounce of smokeless tobacco anywhere near the playing field.
Instead, the two parties that make the game what it is -- Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Union -- are about their own best interests. Anyone outside that dynamic doesn't have a say in the matter until it becomes a brand liability. And often, when it does reach that level, when the game does need to save face, it pushed rules and sanctions on the one party that has no presence at the negotiating table, the minor leagues.
Presently the testing for illegal substances in the minors is more random, rigorous and damning than it is at the major league level. To the point that "the dip police" can come into the clubhouse and look through your lockers to see if you posses a smokeless product, and fine you and your manager accordingly. And in case you were wondering: "If they catch you with the stuff and fine me because of your stupid mistake, well, you can bet your ass you're paying my fine as well," -- said every minor league manager, ever.
But what is the point of these kind of increased prevention policies on smokeless tobacco if they're put in place to maintain an image of non-endorsement? Why enforce it on a population that has nothing to endorse, and virtually zero influence? Kids want to grow up to be big-league stars. That's who they watch: big leaguers -- not minor leaguers.
Furthermore, once a minor leaguer makes it to the bigs, he can pick the habit right back up again as long as he doesn't pull a can out in front of a television camera and pinch out a wad into his lower lip!
The first thing I did when I made it to the big leagues with the Padres in 2008 (after learning how to pack beer into garbage bags full of ice and carry it behind my fellow big leaguers like one of Monty Python's squires during team travel days) was learn how to pack the bullpen candy bag. First thing in that bag: Red Man Chew. And it had to be the Gold or Silver blend, none of that original shit.
The Padres -- yes, the same team that just gathered around the number of one of its legends, dead from smokeless-tobacco-related cancer -- had cases of Red Man. My job as high man on the bullpen totem pole was to make sure the candy bag's supply was fresh because, you know, that stuff dries out quick, and when you're making millions in the bigs, you want the freshest of the fresh. Oh, and before a road trip, make sure you pack a couple boxes so that you always have fresh for the road games, too.
That's just chew. Dip cans and smokes were also a part of the candy bag. Some you had to go out and buy yourself. God help you if you stood in the way of the older player who needed a shot of big Nic before he took the hill. If you didn't have his stuff, you weren't just standing in the way of a guy's fix, you were standing in the way of his career.
The guys in the pen would regularly go into the underground bunker in Petco Park's outfield and blow darts between innings. Because they could. Because who cares, it's part of their routine and that routine obviously works because, hey, I'm in the big leagues, now light me up motherfucker!
Another nice "we're helping them quit" play by the forces of MLB is how they actually try to provide assistance to those who want to quit: Teams all screen for Leukoplakia at spring training. They hold educational lectures that show grizzly worst-case scenario shots. They even offer products designed to help fend off the urge to consume smokeless tobacco.
Team training rooms have dispensers for things like BaccOff, KikIt, Smokey Mountain (fake) Snuff. Even Major League Coffee Dip -- it's shaped like a baseball to make it more baseball-player friendly. But while those products taste (somewhat) like the real thing and (kinda) look like the real thing, they don't grease your body with the chemicals like the real thing. They are not drugs. They are products sold as facsimiles to the real thing you need a license to buy and consume. They're a graduated form of Big League Chew, another product that gains its market penetration by hanging on the tail of baseball's long-standing association with tobacco.
Which bring us to the crux of this: Smokeless tobacco is part of baseball's culture. It has been for more than 100 years, ever since kids could get baseball cards in tobacco products. But for whatever reason, it's a part of its culture that baseball just doesn't want to shake -- even in the wake of one its most beloved player's deaths. That's odd considering that the argument to get rid of smokeless tobacco is eerily similar to so many of the other arguments about policies baseball has had already.
What if, say, using tobacco was cheating? Then would Baseball and the MLBPA act to change the system? If everyone felt that those consuming smokeless tobacco were gaining an unfair type of chemical advantage over those who didn't want to take the risk of putting it in their bodies? Would they outlaw it then?
What if, say, using smokeless tobacco was a moral and ethical issue? If it were painted as a dangerous substance, and letting stars consume it wantonly in front of our youth was, in a way, endorsing its consumption? Would they outlaw it then?
What if, say, using smokeless tobacco wasn't playing the game the right way? Would they outlaw it then?
As it stands now, using smokeless tobacco is playing the game the right way, and the message being broadcast is that smokeless tobacco, with its rich, creamy, cancer-inducing blend of toxins and poisons, is less dangerous to the baseball-consuming world than HGH, Adderall, pot, alcohol and gambling.
You may say you're only hurting yourself with your decision to use smokeless tobacco. And you're right. You're only hurting you, and even then, you may get lucky and never face the complications that can arise. You may also do steroids and never get caught, or deal with any of the residual health issues. You may gamble, drink and abuse prescription drugs and never see any adverse effects.
But, if you're going to make rules that say one group of people can't abuse a substance because it's about health, prevention and maintaining social integrity, but the other, more powerful, more influential group can, because it's about individual choice and respect, expect me to call you out on it.
It is utterly, indefensibly hypocritical for the players union and the players in it to, on the grounds of moral integrity, outlaw the consumption of, and association with a substance for one group of people but not follow through with the policies themselves. Please, if you're going agree to rules, make them count or don't make them at all.
I'd like to believe that when the next round of mandatory meetings about substance abuse happens, the pics they inevitably show of Tony Gywnn won't be ones connected to making the right personal choice thanks to a scare tactic, but to an initiative that helps the addicts that baseball's long-standing relationship with smokeless tobacco has helped create. I'd like to believe that it will be a message of accountability. Anything else would just be more of the same, don't-make-us-look-bad bullshit that so many of baseball's rules are already known to be.
A legend is dead. Honor him with accountability.