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How Tony Gwynn's death made me quit tobacco


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I have chewed tobacco since my first day of college, when I lived with about 2,000 of our school's freshmen baseball players - because Florida - all of whom dipped aggressively. Their preferred brand was Copenhagen Long Cut, although they were not picky about it, and neither was I. A strictly nighttime thing became an afternoon thing became a pre-breakfast thing, and our dorm rooms were lined with makeshift spittoons fashioned from Pringles cans and Ziplocks bags and whatnot. We were disgusting human beings.

College became law school, which quintupled my dipping - because law school - a rotten hellscape of "negotiable instruments" all-nighters & stress. Law schools are the nation's leading producer of nicotine fiends and assholes.

Law school became parenthood, which is not conducive to taking on the added burden of NOT dipping - because parenthood - a wonderful hellscape of colic-y all-nighters and volcanic MEGA-STRESS, although kids tend to ask questions and I had no answers. No good ones, at least. ("Oh this? It's just dirt from the yard, it is very healthy! IT'S DADDY'S MEDICINE!") So I had to be stealthy with that shit. Yes indeed, I became well trained in the clandestine arts of NINJA DIPPING: leave no trace of spitters or tins or any evidence of this filthy habit's existence. Exhausting work, that. And very much the opposite of prideful.

Growing up, my older brother and I loved Tony Gwynn. We IDOLIZED him. We shared a bedroom and our walls were lined with Gwynn posters, like this one and this one and especially this one, the most iconic of them all. Both of us were right-handed, but at some point we each decided to start hitting left-handed during our Wiffle Ball games in order to mimic his swing. We became quite good at it. I hit left-handed to this day.

Looking back, I think we loved him not only being the best hitter alive, but also for all ...  the reasons ...  we're seeing ...  this week. He was a delightful human being, we knew that then: a cartoonish, two-legged barrel with a Bugs Bunny voice and a .398 smile, the VERY DEFINITION of a "delightful human being" to the adoring eyes of my brother and I in 1984. He was more than that, though, as we're learning now. He was generous and polite and humble, which makes sense. But he also chewed tobacco. The tobacco led to the cancer which led to his death on Monday morning, when Twitter exploded into disbelief and moving tributes from unlikely places. I sat at my desk and cried for the first time since my older brother died 17 years ago.


Florida baseball players and law school and parenting and the stresses of life, THEY are to blame for my dipping! In fact, I've done quite well to not constantly be shoving wads of tobacco & heroin into every orifice of my body all day! It's not even my fault I'm doing this and I can't be punished if it's not my fault HOORAY FOR ME!!!

As recently as this past Sunday night, I honestly believed that, or something awfully close to it. It's not my fault, ergo, bad shit can't happen to me CASE CLOSED. Addicts believe lots of things, of course, but the truth is not one of them. The truth is too ugly - it's as useless as a Surgeon General's Warning label - which I very consciously avoided looking at for the past 20 years, probably because I knew it was true. But you know what? You can't put the truth in your lip after dinner or on a long drive to Grand Rapids, and I never cared to. Fuck the truth, I figured.

Until Tony Gwynn died on Monday morning.

On Tuesday morning, I acknowledged the truth: It is TOTALLY my fault and very very bad shit CAN AND PROBABLY WILL happen to me.

So I quit chewing tobacco. I am on Day 2. I am grumpy and hungry and I want to punch God in His asshole, but whatever. I believe the truth now, and it is terrifying - and I promise you I am not the only one. There are thousands (tens of thousands?) of people just like me who chew tobacco and idolized Tony Gwynn and finally acknowledged that we don't much care to be jawless & dead at 54. 


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