Gwynn taking fight with cancer a day at a time
SAN DIEGO -- Tony Gwynn says he has quit chewing tobacco -- dipping, as it's called in baseball circles -- but it isn't easy. He's not over it, not over the cravings, the addiction.
"I miss it every day," Gwynn said.
He's sitting on a stool in the baseball lounge in the ballpark that bears his name on Saturday, making out the San Diego State lineup for that night's game against Oral Roberts. In front of him is a plastic bag full of gum and sunflower seeds. The salt in the seeds bothers his sensitive tongue, even three months removed from radiation therapy. He's given a bag of raw seeds, but there's one problem: no shells. He enjoys the sensation and the work of splitting the shells with his teeth. Does any of it compensate for the tobacco?
"No," Gwynn said, shaking his head. "I screwed up. I made my mistakes. I'm living with them."
This is a big week for T. Gwynn, head baseball coach of the Aztecs, Hall of Famer, eight-time National League batting champ, 20-year Padres player and cancer survivor. He'll get the results of his latest MRI with the ardent hope that he's still cancer-free. On Wednesday, he'll be in the broadcast booth at PETCO Park during that day's Padres game against the Giants for the first time since his traumatic ordeal began in August. He'll miss the home opener on Tuesday because his Aztecs are on the road, playing at Long Beach State.
Gwynn's more than a little nervous. When a tumor in his neck was surgically removed for the third time in 12 years last summer, it was wrapped around a nerve that controls movement in the right side of the face. For months, that side was effectively paralyzed. Gwynn's speech was slurred; his right eye couldn't shut. Color analysis of a Major League Baseball game was impossible.
Gwynn has done exercises, and the movement has come back. So has his trademark high-pitched laugh. The eye still looks a tad off and the right corner of his lip is twisted a millimeter upwards, but his speech seems flawless.
"I can't grow hair on that side of my face," Gwynn said, tilting his head to the left so an observer can see the smooth skin on one side, the salt- and-pepper beard stubble on the other. He laughs.
Still, he's a tad self-conscious.
"It'll be fun to get back in there," Gwynn said of being part of the Padres television broadcast team with Dick Enberg and Mark Grant. "I just hope I can speak well enough to pull it off. My mouth isn't working at quite 100 percent. When it first started, about [half] of my mouth could open. But now I'm doing good."
That's an understatement. What Gwynn had going this past summer was a perfect storm of health issues caused by being too heavy and dipping for 35 years, through the removal of two benign tumors and too many warnings to count.
To try to lose the weight, he had a lap-band procedure on his stomach during the summer of 2009. But he really didn't follow the diet and after an initial weight loss, he hit a plateau. At his zenith, he says he weighed 330 pounds, 100 more than his playing weight when he retired from the Padres after the 2001 season. The weight gain contributed to back problems and caused a slipped disc to impact a nerve down his leg last summer. Even before he had the tumor surgery on his neck, he needed a walker to get around.
"I was pretty messed up," Gwynn said, "and I didn't even know it."
Any denial or pretense was removed when the tumor revealed cancer of the parotid gland. Before that, Gwynn didn't even want to talk about cancer. He figured if he ignored it, it might not happen. Still, when doctors gave him the diagnosis, he says he was shocked.
"I just thought it was going to come back benign," Gwynn said. "And when it [doesn't], your life kind of stops that day when he tells you that he found some cancer. I guess I wasn't surprised, but I was still stunned. We needed to be aggressive with it, because they said they caught it early. They wrote out a whole strategy of how they were going to go about treatment. And you just say, 'OK, let's go.' So we went to the hospital every day."
Gwynn had to undergo radiation and chemotherapy five days a week for what seemed like months on end and, of course, it wasn't that easy. The radiation was beamed directly into his face, and he had to wear a white, mesh mask to keep the radiation localized. He also had to be secured to a table, so he couldn't move.
Gwynn is claustrophobic, which causes innate anxiety, further complicating matters. He listened to jazz and had to be sedated for the treatments. He was so traumatized he didn't want to come back for the second one. But his wife, Alicia, made sure he did.
"I just said, 'Come on, Tony, you're doing this,' and pushed him out the door," Alicia said. She was with him for every one of the treatments.
Just before Christmas, he invited his son Tony Jr., who plays for the Dodgers; his daughter, Anisha, and their families for the final session. Departing patients get to ring a bell signifying that that part of the treatment is over. For months, Gwynn had anticipated it, longed for it.
"I looked so forward to ringing that bell," Gwynn recalled. "But the day it came and it was time to ring the bell and all my family was there, it didn't mean as much to me as I thought it was going to. I thought that it was the end, and really, it wasn't."
Like any cancer survivor, Gwynn realizes now he's only as good as his last test. He said that the doctors couldn't firmly confirm that his long-time habit of chewing tobacco actually caused the cancer, but he isn't taking any chances. He tearfully promised himself, his baseball team and his family that he would quit. So far, so good, but it's a struggle every day and will be for the rest of his life.
Subsequent to the cancer treatment, Gwynn had the damaged disc removed from his back and is walking free of pain. In that regard, he's a new man. He went back to work coaching his team full-time at the beginning of March, and though he has been told he can't throw batting practice or hit fungos for at least a year, that's a small price to pay. He has a young team with 16 freshmen who need his guidance and teaching.
"I'm trying to be patient," Gwynn said. "It's a different mind-set. I'm a lot calmer. Baseball will always be important, but now, my health is the top priority."
Because the radiation treatment caused neck burns and a loss of taste for food, he dropped 80 pounds to a low of 250. For months, all he could digest was liquids. Now, he's back to eating some of the foods he loves. Alicia, a wonderful cook, has a stand at the stadium where she grills bratwurst and slow-cooks brisket. There's a line of Tony Gwynn sauces that are available to use on the food. On Saturday, he strolled over and grabbed a brat. He says he has to eat four small meals a day and has gained back 10 pounds since he began eating solid foods again.
"But none of it tastes good," Gwynn says.
Last week, the fact that he's on ongoing cancer patient was punctuated by a visit for tests. Because of his claustrophobia, he had to return three times to finish the MRI. He was too restless the first couple of days, and that skewed the results. For the first time in his career, Tony Jr. left tickets for his parents to attend the season opener against the Giants at Dodger Stadium. His mom arrived late. Because of fatigue, his dad didn't make it.
Now, like any cancer survivor, Gwynn is anxiously awaiting the results. Cancer-free?
"They haven't told me that," Gwynn said. "When they tell me, I'll tell you, but they haven't told me that. They just tell me I'm doing good. Alicia is the one who got me to start focusing on the positive rather than the negative and that's what I'm trying to do. It's been seven months, I guess, and here I am."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.