By Jim Riggs, Sports Editor
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column originally was published on Aug. 13, 1988. It was republished again a few years later at the request of a mother who was trying to convince her son to stop using smokeless tobacco. After the death of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn last week at the age of 54 because of oral cancer, which he attributed to years of chewing tobacco, it seemed like it was appropriate to publish it again.
After cigarette commercials were pulled off television, something took their place - commercials for smokeless tobacco. That helped increase the use of chewing tobacco and, mainly, dipping snuff which in turn increased cases of oral cancer in the nation. Studies have shown users of smokeless tobacco have 50 times more chance to develop oral cancer.
Chewing and dipping tobacco have always been associated with baseball players. Dipping (putting a pinch of snuff between the cheek and gum) has become a very popular fad in the past 10 years and even youth league players try to copy their major league heroes by having the back pocket of their pants feature the round outline of a snuff can. But with more studies about the health hazards associated with smokeless tobacco, major league teams began to take action and many no longer provide chewing tobacco or snuff, a long-time locker room freebie, to their players.
Chewing and dipping tobacco are as dangerous as smoking, but a majority of those who participate in such habits don't plan to quit and don't heed the warnings. A former dipper who didn't heed the warning was Bert Echemendia of the Jamestown Expos. But when he developed the early stages of oral cancer at the age of 20, he dropped the dipping habit. Now he finds it difficult to convince his teammates to do the same thing.
''I've told every single one of them and every single one of them knows what I've been through,'' Echemendia said about his teammates. ''If they want to listen, fine. If they don't, that's fine, too. But when they have it in their mouth I tell them some snobby stuff like, 'There you go again. You think that's going to help you hitting?'''
Echemendia began dipping when he was 15 and a freshmen at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, Fla. And why did he start?
''Peer pressure,'' the Cuban native answered.
Echemendia's first experience with snuff was not delightful.
''I was in the outfield and I tried Copenhagen,'' he recalled.
Then he made the mistake of swallowing some of the juice.
''I felt dizzy and I collapsed during batting practice,'' he said. ''I said I would never do it again. It was worse than being drunk, I was unconscious for about an hour. I vomited and everything, but they (his teammates) told me if I did it again the next morning, it wouldn't happen. I was a hard-nosed enough guy, so the next day in practice I did it again and nothing happened. From then on it was like a can a day.''
Echemendia needed a can a day because he was constantly dipping.
''In the morning before breakfast, after breakfast, going to school, during school, at baseball, after baseball, at home, after dinner watching television,'' Echemendia explained was his dipping habit. ''I did it all the time. Sometimes I would fall asleep with it.''
But in 1985, five years after he began dipping, Echemendia's gums began bleeding a lot. He didn't tell his parents, but went to the dentist, who advised him to stop.
''He treated it and I kept dipping and it made it worse,'' Echemendia said. 'Holes started coming out under my teeth.''
Those holes were caused by dipping tobacco. Unlike chewing, the tobacco sits in one position between the cheek and gum and eventually the juice attacks the gums and forms a leukoplakia patch which can develop into cancer.
''It's a strong thing,'' Echemendia said. ''It sits there and you're not chewing it. It's just there and it eats it (the gums) all up.
''In 1986 I stopped. I couldn't take the pain. I couldn't even eat right. I had to chew with my back teeth.''
That was when he was playing baseball at Miami Dade Community College. His deteriorating gums were diagnosed as cancerous and he underwent surgery.
''They tore everything down, he recalled. ''They had to put in new roots. I had artificial root canals, I couldn't chew for three months. I had soup and shakes and food like babies eat.''
That is why his weight dropped from 195 to 160.
''It was the start of cancer, but they got it all,'' Echemendia said. ''It happened to me when I was 20. I'm glad I got it over with when I was young. My gums were weak and I couldn't take it. Some guys can take it for four, five, six, seven years with no problem. But wait until the eighth or ninth year comes around. That's going to be it.''
''It'' is the surgery that Echemendia went through.
''It's an expensive operation,'' he said. ''It's a sore operation. It's very bad eating for two or three months. You've got wires in your mouth, wires in your teeth.''
The players sit through a presentation with slides about the hazards of smokeless tobacco in spring training, Echemendia says.
''They don't care,'' he said. ''They're going to stop when the same thing happens to them as happened to me.''
One Expo who stopped was pitcher Brian Sajonia, who was already thinking about quitting the dipping habit. Last month, Echemendia told Sajonia about his problems and showed him his healing gums.''
''That sort of put me over the edge,'' Sajonia said. ''If you know somebody and hear them (give warnings), it goes in one ear and out the other.
But hearing it from a teammate made an impact on Sajonia and he quit immediately.
''I started at 20 (two years ago),'' he said. ''I had it easier (to quit) than others.''
Echemendia knows it is difficult to get his teammates to stop using smokeless tobacco, but his main concern is to keep youngsters from starting. That is why he likes to talk about to youth groups about the risks involved.
''If I go out and talk to five kids and one of them listens, that's a big help,'' he said.
And maybe they will listen because Echemendia speaks from experience. A painful experience.