When 51s manager Wally Backman and pitching coach Frank Viola were in their heyday in the 1980s, the two World Series champions weren’t too concerned about protecting themselves from the sun or the possibility of getting skin cancer one day.
“I never really thought about it,” Backman said.
Neither did many of his contemporaries, including Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt, who revealed in March that he was recovering from an advanced form of skin cancer that required two operations and chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
Schmidt, who hit 548 home runs in his 18-year career, said he never used sunscreen when he played so that he could get a tan.
When the 64-year-old had a “crusty little thing” on his hand examined in August 2013, his dermatologist diagnosed him with Stage 3 melanoma — an aggressive and potentially deadly form of skin cancer that cost Schmidt’s grandfather an ear.
Countless other baseball players — including Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench — have been affected by skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the United States. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology estimates that one in five Americans will develop the disease in their lifetimes.
Bench — who was treated in 2012 for basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer — has helped Major League Baseball raise skin cancer awareness through its Play Sun Smart campaign, which has conducted annual screening days for all 30 big league teams for the past 15 years.
Minor league teams aren’t screened, but 51s first baseman Allan Dykstra said most players are mindful of the skin cancer risk and regularly use sunscreen.
“They have it out in the training room. It’s always encouraged,” he said. “On days when it’s hot, most people realize they need to stay hydrated and keep their skin protected. It’s almost common sense.”
A fair-skinned redhead, Dykstra long has been vigilant about avoiding sun damage.
“My family has a history of melanoma and skin cancer, so I always wear sunscreen,” he said. “Even on some of the hotter days, I wear some (long) sleeves just to stay protected, because the sun is so intense here.
“It’s a habit now for me to make sure I put sunscreen on, especially during batting practice and day games.”
While Las Vegas mostly plays night games, players are on the field at 2:30 p.m. daily for early batting or fielding practice or pitching work — with regular batting practice usually starting around 4.
Dykstra and his brother, parents and grandparents have been affected by skin cancer.
“I’ve had moles removed from my back, my brother has and both my parents had things that were possible skin cancers removed,” he said. “It’s just not worth the risk.”
Most scouts also take the proper precautions to protect their skin.
“A couple years ago, our club made sure we expensed sunscreen so that we were protected for it because of the onset of older scouts getting skin cancer,” Colorado Rockies scout Will George, 55, said at a recent 51s game. “I use it all the time, especially in spring training when you’re out in it all day long every day.”
Rockies scout Mike Paul, 70, said he goes to the dermatologist once a year to get checked for skin cancer.
“He comes in, takes a look at me, he’s there 15 seconds and says, ‘Well, something else will kill you besides the sun,’” he said. “And I’m out the door.”
In actuality, Paul has had cancer cells removed from his right arm, but said it was a small price to pay after being exposed to the sun for 47 years as a player, coach and scout.
“He found a little something and cut it out, and I was fine. But I’m 70 years old, and that was a first,” he said. “I’m fine, really, because there were times when you don’t put anything on when you’re younger. You almost feel like you’re infallible. It comes back to kick you in the ass.”
Viola can relate. He said himself and many other players from his era took a lot of things for granted.
“We all did, from sunscreen to dipping (tobacco),” he said. “As athletes, I think the biggest problem we have is we think we’re invincible, be it sunscreen or whatever the case may be.
“You get an awakening when you see Tony Gwynn die of oral cancer or Curt Schilling coming up with cancer of the mouth. Maybe that’s the wakeup call all of us need to have to start taking care of ourselves better, because we aren’t invincible.”
Viola, who had heart surgery in April and needs a partial knee replacement, has reason to believe that today’s players will look after themselves better than his generation did.
“Maybe kids today have learned their lesson and are taking care of themselves better, because in spring training I do see them do a hell of a lot more applying of sunscreen and stuff to protect themselves than I know we did in my time,” he said. “I’ve learned my lesson, with this heart situation. I’ve really turned 100 percent around and started taking care of myself because I realize now I’m not invincible.”
■ NOTE — The 51s suffered a 4-3 loss to El Paso in 10 innings Friday at Cashman Field. Noah Syndergaard threw six shutout innings, and Dykstra hit a tying solo homer in the eighth for the 51s (63-52). Las Vegas went 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.