MIAMI -- He checked his cellphone and saw three missed calls from his wife. When he got in touch with her, Brett Butler understood her sense of urgency.
"She's crying," Butler said. "She goes, 'Tony died.'"
That's how Butler, a throat cancer survivor, learned that complications from salivary gland cancer had claimed the life of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn at age 54. Gwynn attributed the illness to his use of smokeless tobacco. Butler was diagnosed in 1996.
"For my wife and then for me, it was too close to home," said Butler, who for all but a fraction of his 17-year career played on National League West teams against Gwynn and his San Diego Padres.
"It was one of those things, why him and why am I still here? That's how my wife went through it, so we went through a moment there reflecting on just how fortunate we are to still be here."
Butler's smokeless tobacco use didn't rival that of Gwynn's. He did it during the 1981-'82 seasons before a watershed moment got him to quit. In April 1983, Butler took part in a baseball clinic. One of the kids in attendance approached him and said: "Look, I dip because you do."
He hasn't used since.
"What needs to be preached, what needs to be stressed, what needs to be taught is the fact of we are role models," said Butler, who is not among those in favor of Major League Baseball banning smokeless tobacco.
"You are going to be a good one, you are going to be a bad one, but you are going to be a role model and you need to take that seriously."
Though Butler had long since quit when he was diagnosed, he can't rule out smokeless tobacco as a contributing factor to the illness. He underwent surgery in May 1996 and missed the remainder of the campaign. Butler at age 40 played one final season for the Dodgers in 1997, totaling 401 plate appearances over 105 games.
From the time Butler was at Arizona State, he like countless players associated smokeless tobacco use with being a major leaguer. He recalled during his freshman year how one of his coaches directed a brown stream of tobacco juice at his white cleats and said, 'Son, if you're ever going to play in the big leagues you have to learn to chew.' "
Butler added: "He handed me some chewing tobacco and I put it in my mouth. After about 15 minutes I threw up so bad I could not practice and had to go back to the dorm."
In 1980 as a minor leaguer in Durham, N.C., Butler met a retired policeman named Ray Evans, who reintroduced him to the habit.
"I remember walking out one day and I used to chew gum all the time and he said, 'Hey, why don't you try this?'" Butler said. "He threw me a pack of Levi Garrett. Every (day) I would come out he would throw me a pack of Levi Garrett and I'd take my gum and wrap it around it. I had three or four hits so I was like, OK. One day we ran out and somebody gave me Skoal. I had a dip of Skoal, had a couple of hits, and that was it.
"I'm ... the only one in my family that had throat cancer. Could (smokeless tobacco) have been a contributing factor? Yeah, now it wasn't until 15 years later that it came. ... Even now there are times, all of a sudden you hear about Tony, and for me the mind monsters come back about 'Oh my Gosh, would it ever come back?' "
Armed with enduring faith and an unyielding positive outlook, Butler -- like any good role model -- will be ready if it ever does.
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