San Diego’s “Bat Man” Gwynn once again dealing with the type of curve life throws

Posted: 02/14/2012 in baseball
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Life is throwing Tony Gwynn another curveball.

Not the type the eight-time batting champ can just slap through the 5.5 hole into left field either.

The San Diego Padres legend underwent surgery Tuesday to remove a cancerous tumor from his cheek. This is the 51-year-old Gwynn’s second malignant tumor on the right side of his mouth in 18 months.

Gwynn also reportedly had two benign tumors removed at previous times in his life from the same area – known as the parotid gland – so it is becoming quite clear that this is becoming a very serious health issue for the guy known as Mr. Padre.

Basically, there is no more famous athlete in San Diego sports history than Gwynn, who also played college basketball at San Diego State and is currently the baseball coach at his alma mater.

He played his entire major-league career for the Padres and has remained in the public eye since his retirement. Nearly everybody in San Diego feels like they know Gwynn on some level whether they have ever met him or not.

I dealt with Gwynn frequently when I covered San Diego State’s athletic program and he was mostly great to deal with. You had to put up with some of his moods – he had this weird notion that a college baseball program attracting a couple hundred fans per game should draw equal coverage to the football and men’s basketball programs – but he would also fill up your notebook and tape recorder with insightful, relevant comments.

He would go crazy after some frustrating losses and challenge you about some silly things – still remember him chewing me out near the first-base line on the University of San Diego baseball field for asking him questions about a subject he was hoping to avoid – but you could also show up in his office prior to a midweek baseball practice on a few minutes’ notice and he’d talk to you for half an hour.

He’d yank your chain and act like a tough guy but more times than not, he would resort back to being Tony Gwynn and eventually bust out that familiar laugh.

Gwynn’s infatuation with not seeing me more often – if he only knew the folks running the sports section thought it was a complete waste of time for me to cover ANY of San Diego State’s baseball games – prompted me to come up with his catchy retort:

“Most people would like to see more of Tony Gwynn – Tony Gwynn would like to see more of me.”

Oh yeah – the thrills and spills of being an inquisitive and probing reporter.

Gwynn definitely has been a great father role model for his son, who played on San Diego State’s team prior to his major-league career.

I never could get Tony Gwynn Jr. to quit calling me “Mr. Sullivan.” Even when he returned one of my phone calls after becoming a professional player, he pulled out that Mister stuff.

Anecdotes aside, you never want anybody to have to deal with any type of major cancer surgery. But it makes it worse for all San Diegans when it happens to a guy like Gwynn.

Gwynn brought the city so much joy and has a statue in the mold of his classic swing on the grass beyond center field at Petco Park. You only get a statue if you have truly made a major, major impact. There isn’t a statue of Mike Ivie, Billy Almon or Dave Freisleben anywhere.

And the way Gwynn handled his business as a major-league player brought him tons of respect, both in San Diego and on a national level.

So I can only imagine the distress Gwynn has felt in recent weeks that his cancer has returned. The concern over Tuesday’s surgery, which reportedly might include the removal of the main nerve in the right side of his face, certainly packs more of an emotional wallop than facing a tough left-hander with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the Padres down a run.

The baseball-playing Gwynn came through more often than not. But this situation is a much-different ballgame.

It just never sounds good to hear the C-word.

I’ve had several skin cancers removed in my life and just had a biopsy performed on my nose last week. It’s a little unnerving when the doctor tells you his suspicions, marks up your nose, has the nurse take pictures, makes you sign consent forms and then takes out a chunk of your skin to be tested.

It remains a concern even when you feel confident that it won’t turn out to be anything major.

In my situation, I never want to hear the term “melanoma” so it was an incredible relief to get the results back and hear that the tumor was “benign.”

Benign — a word seldom used but incredibly great to hear.

In Gwynn’s case, he heard the word “malignant” and I have no idea how that sinks in or shakes up a person’s world. Not really in any hurry to find that out firsthand.

This is Gwynn’s second tough at-bat since retirement. He has a lot of people pulling for him to come through. Just as he always did on the baseball diamond.

This curveball just happens to be a bit trickier to fight off.


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