Tony Gwynn returns after facing cancer

Former Padres standout was in danger of losing more than just his signature smile.

Updated: June 16, 2014, 11:26 AM ET
By Tom Friend | ESPN.com

SAN DIEGO -- The trophy case in his home is full of gold gloves, silver bats and taco-brown uniforms. But it's the white mask in the corner that keeps Tony Gwynn preoccupied.

Sometimes he puts on the mask to remember his November and December, to remember what it felt like to have the ultimate fastball aimed at his head. Sometimes he puts it on for no reason at all. It's the only item in his trophy room that he stares at, the only item that has nothing to do with baseball, the only item that is probably worthless on eBay but priceless to this Hall of Famer.

To Tony Gwynn, it is not just a mask made out of ordinary plastic. It is the mask that helped him, literally, save face.

A Major League laugh

From 1982 to 2001, the San Diego Padres' clubhouse would reverberate with the most stirring laugh. The sound was part hyena, part grammar school, and even the most jaded veterans would chuckle along with it.

[+] EnlargeTony Gwynn
US PresswireTony Gwynn, seen during the 1992 season, spent his entire 20-year MLB career with the San Diego Padres.

Shortstop Garry Templeton would hear the laugh while smoking a cigarette and nod in approval. Pitcher Goose Gossage would hear it while chugging a beer and offer a thumbs up. Third baseman Graig Nettles would hear it while lighting a teammate's shoe on fire and deliver a wink.

Tony Gwynn wasn't just baseball's purist hitter; he was baseball's teeth and gums. He would be on base 40 percent of the time and smiling 70 percent of the time. The sport wasn't just his job; it was for his utter amusement.

"You can be in a bad mood and either you see the smile or hear the cackle of his laugh, and it's all over," said Mark Grant, a pitcher who spent four seasons with the Padres. "He would be the worst guy to bring to church because, if you looked at him, you would start laughing and get in trouble."

When a franchise's best player is also its most jovial, a fan base falls in love. The line to secure Gwynn's autograph would stretch from Jack Murphy Stadium practically to Chula Vista. He received standing ovations for his 1,000th hit, his 2,000th hit and his 3,000th hit. He gave the city the gift of eight batting titles. He was nicknamed "Mr. Padre." He became a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He did auto commercials, raffles, batting clinics, charity work. He did it all with a grin, and there are photos to prove it.

But something was lurking in those same photos. Look closer at the pictures. On the right side of his face, close to his lip, there was always something inside his mouth.

A pinch -- make that a pouch -- of smokeless tobacco.

Disgusting but widespread

Thirty years ago, players came to the ballpark with their bats, their gloves, their spikes and their chew.

[+] EnlargeTony Gwynn
Courtesy The Gwynn FamilyAs a young player, Gwynn says, he would use a can and a half of smokeless tobacco a day. In this photo, Gwynn is holding his daughter, Anisha.

To the public, baseball was as American as apple pie. But there were San Diego Padres who actually would eat their pie with tobacco in their cheek. "I literally watched guys have dinner with a dip in their mouth," former Padre Kurt Bevacqua said. "That stuff is flat-out nasty."

The peer pressure would begin on minor league buses and in clubhouses. College players would already be hooked on chew, and young high school draft picks would try it to fit in.

"Next thing you know, you are turning green, the earth is spinning and you are getting sick," said Grant, San Francisco's first-round pick in 1981. "It's disgusting. You see guys come to the dugout, and the cups are all over the place, and they take it out and throw it on the ground, and you've got to walk in it. It's an addiction from what I hear. I talked to a guy, and I said, 'Put it in perspective for me.' And he said, 'Mark, what's your favorite candy bar?' I said, 'Probably Snickers; if I'm craving something, I really enjoy a Snickers bar.' He goes, 'Well, times that by 100, and that's what a dip is to me. When I wake up in the morning, I have got to have a dip.'"

Gwynn had had the same morning habit -- brush your teeth, then fire in a dip -- since he was playing rookie ball in Walla Walla, Wash. Don't let the smile fool you; he was a pessimist in those days, paranoid that his swing would fall to pieces overnight. He would be first to the batting cages every day, convinced that his 3-for-4 the previous night was an aberration. He was more nervous than he ever let on, and dipping smokeless tobacco took the edge off.

When he was a young major leaguer, he said, he began using -- at his house, at his locker and out in right field -- a can and a half of Skoal every day. You could see the circular can in the back pocket of his baseball pants. He would leave plastic cups full of chew, which were quasi-spittoons, around his family's kitchen. In the late '80s, his young son, Tony Jr., mistook one for a cup of juice and drank it.

"I could never [chew]," said Tony Jr., now an outfielder for the Dodgers. "Just from the standpoint of I've tasted what it tastes like after it comes out of somebody's mouth."

[+] EnlargeTony Gwynn
Getty ImagesGwynn often had a pouch of smokeless tobacco in his cheek as he sat in the dugout at Jack Murphy Stadium.

Gwynn's wife, Alicia, whom he's known since his childhood in Long Beach, Calif., would rant at him to quit. She'd tell him he wasn't being a good influence on his own kids or on the kids who idolized him. She guilt-tripped him sufficiently that he'd periodically try to quit "cold turkey." He'd try sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds instead. He'd try bubble gum. But, in the middle of the night, he'd get the sweats.

He says he'd sneak out of his house at 2 a.m., "like a criminal,'' to drive to a local convenience store to buy his tobacco. He did this so frequently a woman behind the counter wouldn't want to sell it to him. She knew who he was, knew he was hooked.

He knew it, too. "I hate to say it," he would tell people at the time, "but, yeah, I'm a tobacco junkie."

In 1991, he noticed a growth inside his right cheek, near his lips, and he presumed the smokeless tobacco had caused it. Still, he ignored the lump for a while, but finally saw a surgeon, who performed a biopsy, which came back negative. On his way home from the hospital, while Alicia drove, Gwynn reached for his chew.

"Now [keep] in mind that wound is still open," she said. "I said, 'Tony, your wound is not even closed yet. You can't do that.' But he would go to sleep at night with it in his mouth. I would get up at night and would yell at him, 'Wake up and take that out of your mouth.'"

He'd remove it -- and then open a new can at the stadium. For 20 seasons, it went on this way. And when he retired in 2001, it didn't stop. It didn't stop when he began broadcasting games for ESPN and the local Padres station in 2002. It didn't stop when he became San Diego State's head coach in 2002. It didn't stop when he reached the Hall of Fame in 2007. It didn't stop when former big leaguer Joe Garagiola told him he could die from it. And it didn't stop when a second growth surfaced in his cheek.

That second biopsy, in 2007, also came back negative. So Tony Gwynn exhaled and continued to dip. Even though the NCAA had banned tobacco from college dugouts, he would use it in his office, use it in the video room, use it in his car and try his best not to use it around Alicia.

Strike three

In early August 2010, after a long flight from Baltimore to San Diego, Gwynn's back gave out. He'd been carrying extra pounds for years, but now he was up in the 330-pound range -- 100 pounds more than his playing weight -- and, inevitably, his body was starting to pay.

[+] Enlarge Alicia Gwynn
AP Photo/Mike GrollAlicia Gwynn urged her husband to stop using smokeless tobacco.

He already was battling lower-leg problems, but this back issue was outright debilitating. Painkillers weren't helping, and the smokeless tobacco was no relief. To make matters worse, he had a marble-sized knot on his right cheek that Alicia had spotted.

She'd had a hunch for months that something was brewing in the same spot as the previous lumps. "I could see the right side of his face kept getting bigger," she said.

Because Gwynn had put on so much weight, friends and other family members figured it was just puffiness in his face from his added body mass. And since the earlier biopsies had come back benign, the alarms weren't sounding. But Alicia kept nudging him to see a doctor, and she prevailed.

He entered the hospital using a walker. The biopsy was performed Aug. 31, and when he woke up in his room, the first person he saw was Alicia.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"You know it's cancer, right?"

"I'm dying?"

Trying desperately to save face

In the presence of her husband, Alicia stayed strong. She had been a track athlete at San Diego State and had always been his sounding board. When, as a young player, he'd come home complaining about his swing, she'd tape his at-bats on the VCR and critique his mechanics. She was as much his batting coach as Merv Rettenmund was on the '98 World Series Padres. Alicia was his rock.

She told her husband, no, he was not dying. At least, that's what the surgeon had told her. But when she looked at him after the surgery and saw the distortion of his face, it still took everything Alicia had not to break down.

[+] EnlargeTony Gwynn
Courtesy Scripps Clinic Torrey PinesTony Gwynn in the fall of 2010, before he began radiation therapy.

His right eye wouldn't close, wouldn't even blink. During the operation, doctors had peeled back the right side of his face and discovered that the malignant tumor was wrapped around one of his nerves. This particular nerve controlled the right side of his face, from his forehead to his eye to his mouth to his cheek. If they had removed the tumor entirely, the nerve would have been irreparably harmed and that side of his face would have been permanently paralyzed. He would never have been able to close his eye or eat without drooling. Instead, the surgeons salvaged the nerve by leaving remnants of the tumor, hoping chemotherapy and radiation would clear the rest of the growth. Which was what Alicia and the doctor had to tell him he had to look forward to.

Gwynn asked whether smokeless tobacco caused all of this. The head radiation oncologist at Scripps Clinic, Dr. Prabhakar Tripuraneni (whom the Gwynns call Dr. T.) said he couldn't definitively say dipping initiated the tumor. He says it's his opinion that the cancer was unrelated, but acknowledged there hadn't been sufficient studies done to prove it one way or another. Gwynn's reaction was, "Of course it caused it," and Alicia nodded.

"If Tony believes that, who am I to argue with him?" Tripuraneni says.

That same day, Alicia called Tony Jr., who was playing for the Padres, and wept as she broke the news. But she didn't tell her son everything, not that afternoon, anyway. It was too hard to say, too hard to fathom:

Because of the operation, Tony Gwynn, of all people, was physically unable to smile.

Revealing himself to his team

Every morning, using his walker, he'd shuffle to the bathroom and examine his face in the mirror. He'd pull at his right cheekbone. It was numb. He'd try to bat his right eye, but it was frozen. He'd try to raise his upper lip, to see his teeth, but it was impossible. The only portion of his face he could control was the left side of his forehead.

Three or four times a day, Alicia would find him in front of that mirror, pulling at his mouth, rubbing his empty face. The first time he took a shower, he got soap in his right eye because he couldn't shut it. It stung. All he wanted to do was rest, but it was difficult to sleep with one eye open. His doctor told him to tape his eye shut, that it would allow him to doze off and help the eye heal. He simply didn't recognize himself anymore. He had lost weight because it was torture to eat. He thought he looked like hell.

[+] EnlargeTony Gwynn
SDSU Athletic Dept. Tony Gwynn is entering his ninth season as coach at San Diego State.

He became something of a recluse, but, as time wore on, he knew he'd have to say something to his players at San Diego State. The news of his cancer hadn't gone public yet, and with his chemotherapy and radiation scheduled to begin in October, he decided to call a team meeting early that month .

His players hadn't seen him at fall workouts, and the one person on staff who knew of the cancer -- assistant coach Mark Martinez -- would tell players only that their coach had a bad back. So when Gwynn entered the clubhouse meeting -- with a walker, baggy clothes, a scarred face and a distorted eye -- the players were aghast.

"He walked in, and we all knew he was in trouble," Aztecs senior outfielder Patrick Colwell said. "His face was pretty beat up. He was bent over at the waist and basically clutching on to that walker like it was the only thing that was keeping him upright. Basically, half a side of his face was not working. He couldn't blink his eye, he couldn't move his mouth on that side and he was just forced to talk out of one side of his mouth. And grief set upon everybody."

The players circled around him as Gwynn began to speak. His words were more deliberate than normal, slightly muffled. He explained that he had cancer, that he thought it was from smokeless tobacco and that, because of his upcoming chemotherapy and radiation, he was not going to be around the team in the foreseeable future.

And then Tony Gwynn began to cry.

Next time is gonna be different

For close to 40 years, his life had been spent in dugouts and clubhouses, laughing at everyone's jokes, smiling about the "cheese" a pitcher just threw him, chatting about hitting ... chatting about hitting ... chatting about hitting. The thought of being away from the sport was crushing him.

Alicia was in the room during the clubhouse meeting, and she couldn't remember the last time her husband wept like that. "I could hear his voice cracking, and I'm like, 'Oh my God, he's breaking down,'" she said. "I don't see Tony Gwynn break down. He's always the Rock of Gibraltar."

He said the last time he'd sobbed was when his father, Charles, died in 1993 from heart problems, but this one was in front of 19- and 20-year-olds who were sobbing right back at him. Before he left the room that day, he assured them that when he came back, "things are going to be different around here." He wasn't going to dip anymore, and he didn't want them dipping, either. He promised them he'd bring in mounds of bubble gum, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds, and that when he made it back, he was going to keep a close watch on all of them.

Problem was, a lot of those players left the meeting thinking he'd never coach them again.

Tony GwynnESPNTony Gwynn in the mask he wore during radiation therapy.

The mask vs. the music

Before Gwynn could begin his eight weeks of radiation treatments, the hospital staff had to fit him with his white mask. The mesh mask was made of a porous plastic and would immobilize his head during treatment so the radiation could be aimed precisely at his remaining tumor.

But the mask was going to fit snugly and be uncomfortable. Right away, he despised it. The radiation technician had him lie down on a table for his first treatment, and as soon as the mask went on, Gwynn wanted to call the whole thing off. He told them he was claustrophobic, but they proceeded as planned. Then, shortly into the treatment, he climbed off the table.

The technician told him they'd have to start the whole treatment over, and when he told them no way, Alicia said, "You've got to do this. You've got to."

To calm him down, the technician decided to cut larger eyeholes in the mask. He also told him they had an amazing sound system. Gwynn asked whether they could pipe in some jazz, because his father always loved jazz and because Tony also listened to jazz before his ballgames as a player. That -- plus a mild sedative -- helped ease him back onto the table.

[+] EnlargeTony Gwynn
Courtesy Scripps Clinic Torrey PinesTony Gwynn, in the fall of 2010, undergoing radiation therapy.

Gwynn hated needles, too, so the accompanying chemotherapy was just as stressful. He didn't want to return for his second day of radiation treatments, pleaded with Alicia, "Do I have to go?" But she pointed him to their car, and he laid down in the back seat, still debilitated from the disc injury in his back. Only this time, he brought his iPod.

"I would say, 'OK, let's listen to Kirk Whalum today, listen to Boney James today,'" Gwynn said. "And they would put my iPod in and then I would get on the [radiation] table and they'd put this mask over me ... and clamp it down."

He got into a daily routine of waking up, heading to the mirror, searching for his smile and going to the hospital to put on his white mask. And almost every day, there'd be some sort of revelation. Because of the radiation, the hair stopped growing on the right side of his face, meaning he had half a mustache and half a goatee. The left side of his face was gray stubble, and the right side was smooth. He said if he could've laughed, he would have.

Tripuraneni would see the burn marks from the radiation and joke, "Oh, crispy." Gwynn wanted to laugh at that, as well. He noticed that whenever the cancer patients finished their last radiation treatment, they got to ring a bell by the entry door. He envied that, every time. So that's all he and Alicia would talk about on their way to his treatments, as he lay in the back seat with his iPod: how many days until the bell.

"He would say, 'One down, 34 to go,'" she said. "He'd say, 'I can't wait to ring that bell; I can't wait to hear the sound of that bell.'"

By early December, as the number of treatment days dwindled, the visits to the mirror seemed more rewarding. His right eye was beginning to blink, and his mouth wasn't as crooked when he brushed his teeth. Eating was still a chore, because the radiation had dried up his mouth, obliterated his taste buds and given him sores. All he could stomach was oranges and cottage cheese. But at least he was chewing better.

Finally, on Dec. 7, he was down to one final treatment. He invited his daughter, Anisha, and his son, Tony Jr., to come with him, along with Anisha's husband and Tony Jr.'s wife and children. He wanted everyone from the family present, because he was going to ring that bell louder than anyone had ever rung it.

When the treatment was over, he unloaded on that bell. It was piercing. But then there was another noise no one had heard in months.

"That day he rang that bell was the first time I heard him really give one of those big hefty laughs out," Tony Jr. said. "It was a relief to hear. Even though it was only coming out of one side of his mouth, it was enough for us to be like, 'Oh, OK, he's in there somewhere.'"

And on his way out of the room, Tony Gwynn grabbed the white mask to take home. His beloved white mask.

Tony GwynnESPNSan Diego Padres Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn turns 52 today.

Finally, he can laugh again

Christmas came, and Tony told Alicia she was his hero for staying on his case, for being his "confidence coach." January came, and he was able to attend the Stephen Strasburg Charity 5K at San Diego State, his first public appearance since the diagnosis. February came, and he had back surgery. Valentine's Day came, and Tony Gwynn rejoined his ballclub.

Some of the freshmen had shaved their hair into Mohawks, and Gwynn laughed a high-pitched laugh at the sight of them. It was part hyena, part grammar school, and the veteran Aztecs players heard it and gave a thumbs up or a nod or a wink.

March came, and Tony Gwynn was pronounced cancer free. He weighed exactly 250 pounds, just 20 pounds more than his playing weight, and on his diet of oranges and cottage cheese, he expected to hit 230 by Easter. He didn't want to be what Joe Garagiola was: a spokesman against smokeless tobacco. It wasn't his nature to be high profile. He was just happy to have a clubhouse to come to, just happy that he could smile a full smile and pass a locker room mirror without needing to look at his eye or tug on his lip.

All was right with the world again. There were jars of sunflower seeds, pumpkins seeds and gum in the locker room.

And out in the left-field batting cage, the former cancer patient was chatting about hitting ... chatting about hitting ... chatting about hitting.

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN.com.