Baseball fans bid farewell to another legend of the sport with the passing of a true Hall of Famer, Tony Gwynn.
We all know how dominant Gwynn was for the San Diego Padres. He finished with a career batting average of .338 with 3,141 career hits, 19 consecutive seasons batting at least .300, 15 MLB All-Star selections, eight batting titles, seven Silver Slugger Awards and five Gold Glove awards.
Just to show how great of a hitter he was, Gwynn struck out just 434 times in his whole career of 2,440 games. That averages out to be just over one strikeout every 21 games.
The most strikeouts he ever had in one season was 40. As I type this article right now (June 20), there are already 164 MLB players with at least 40 strikeouts this season, and most teams have at least 100 games remaining.
To say Gwynn was a dominant hitter might be an understatement.
Off the field, Gwynn was considered to be one of the most personable, intelligent and fan-friendly players to talk to. Media members loved him, his teammates loved him and most of all, fans of Major League Baseball loved him.
Gwynn played the game the way it should be played. He defied odds from day one. Standing at just 5-11, 200 pounds, nothing about his stature made people think he would be a Hall of Fame player, especially with his lack of hitting power (only 135 homeruns in 20 seasons).
However, his incredible bat speed and his decision to use a very lightweight bat (31 ounces) meant less power, but easily putting the ball in play for a man with his talent. Gwynn loved hitting to the opposite field because he would wait so long for the pitch to get close to the strike zone before putting his quick bat through the zone and belting a liner to the outfield.
The San Diego Padres retired Gwynn’s number 19 in 2004, and after that, Gwynn went into coaching college baseball at his alma mater, San Diego State. Gwynn guided the Aztecs to three Mountain West Championships and three appearances in the NCAA Baseball Tournament.
Sadly, Gwynn’s love for baseball went hand-in-hand with his love for chewing tobacco. Some say that there was never a time near a baseball field from high school through his professional days that he did not have a dip of tobacco in his mouth.
In 2010, Gwynn was first diagnosed with cancer of the salivary gland, a rare cancer that can be caused from dipping tobacco. However, Gwynn overcame the disease the first time around with multiple operations.
Cancer returned again two months ago, but this time, it overpowered the sturdy Hall of Fame player. Gwynn passed away on June 16 due to complications from the disease.
While no one has said for certain that his dipping habit shortened his lifespan, Gwynn attributed it to his health problems and said he dipped almost daily from 1981 until the end of his career. Not only that, but Gwynn said the tumors he battled were in the exact same spot in his mouth where he always put his dip in.
High school athletic associations, including the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, as well as the NCAA, have banned players from using tobacco products on the field, a step in the right direction. Even all Minor League teams have restrictions on tobacco use, leaving Major League Baseball as the only league that has not adopted a strict policy on dipping tobacco on the field.
As someone who has never dipped, it is impossible for me to understand why so many people, particularly baseball players, enjoy doing it. However, with the proven health risks, and now possibly causing the early death of one of the all-time greats of my generation, maybe it is time for users to consider making a permanent switch to sunflower seeds and bubblegum.
The ball has been hit to you, Major League Baseball. It’s your time to make a play on it.
*Nathan Ham can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or followed on Twitter @NathanHam87