Tony Gwynn: Back in the Game
The baseball legend talks tobacco and life after cancer
Tony Gwynn used smokeless tobacco for his entire 20-year career with the Padres and a decade after that. First in August 2010, then in February of this year, Gwynn had surgery to remove a malignant growth from his right cheek, where the Hall of Famer always packed the “chew.” Able to speak on the same morning that he woke up from the 14-hour procedure at UCSD’s Thornton Hospital on February 15, Gwynn, 51, hopes to resume duties this year as San Diego State’s baseball coach and a color analyst on Padres telecasts. At his home in Poway, Gwynn recently reflected on his health and his community.
When did you learn of the cancer’s return? Mid-January. I thought the doctor was just taking the sutures out because I had had a biopsy on my neck. The last thing I expected was for him to tell me the cancer was back.
Your reaction to the news? It was a complete shock, and it took a while for it all to sink in. You fight this battle one time and you get through it. When they told me it was back, I was out of it for a couple of days. You try to come up with a plan. You can’t sit back on these things. You say, “OK, let’s be aggressive.”
Waking up from surgery, what did you think? I woke up at 4:30 in the morning and said, “OK, I made it.” And I heard myself say it, which, I think the fact that I could talk, put me at ease, put my family at ease. I had told (wife) Alicia that if I woke up,
I’d be happy.
Not just your family and friends, but people throughout San Diego pull for you. How does that affect you? It’s great that people care that much about you. That part is great. But, right now, I just want to get healthy and get back to doing the things I did before, because I just like to blend in and be part of the community. It’s hard just letting everybody know you’re all right.
You’ve said you believe your use of smokeless tobacco, for roughly 30 years, caused the cancer. When was your last dip? The day before the first surgery.
Would you say it’s an addiction for you? I would say that it is. Even after I had the first surgery, the cravings were still there. I tried the fake stuff; it just wasn’t the same. Tasted terrible. Now, having gone through that process, I’m just going to try to chew gum. The thing about not having any [chew] is, you can get through it. It’s hard, but you can get through it.
One of your former Padres coaches, Grady Little, said chew “mainlines nicotine into the bloodstream.” Is that how it feels? That’s why it’s so hard to stop. I’m a college coach. [Chew] is not allowed at the college level. I’ve done more than try to stop my players and coaches. I’ve been like a commando, trying to keep it out of these guys’ hands. It ain’t been easy, I can tell you that.
I’m just telling kids, “Don’t do what I did.” You’ve got to make good decisions in your life and that was not a good one. I’ve got three grandchildren. I’ve got a daughter that one day’s gonna have a child. I want to be there for that. I want to be there for my wife. Mrs. Gwynn has been great. She is Miss Positive. She is a gem. She said, “Don’t worry, you’re going to come through this.”