The death of the greatest baseball player in Padres history can make a grown man cry

Posted: 06/16/2014 in baseball
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Tony Gwynn helps an ailing Ted Williams throw out the first pitch at the 1992 All-Star Game in San Diego.

Tony Gwynn helps an ailing Ted Williams throw out the first pitch at the 1992 All-Star Game in San Diego. Gwynn passed away Monday at age of 54 after a lengthy battle with cancer.

I have no problem admitting this – I am crying right now.

Complete with tears streaming down my face.

Tony Gwynn, the best player in San Diego Padres’ history, is dead at age 54 after a bout with cancer.

Gwynn had all but disappeared from public view earlier this year after his cancer flared back up so it was clear his health had taken a downturn. I even sent a text to my youngest brother a couple months ago saying that Gwynn might die before Jim Kelly, the Buffalo Bills quarterback fighting a public bout with cancer.

But that didn’t make the actual word of his death any less shocking.

Gwynn won eight batting titles and finished his career with 3,141 hits and a .338 average. His nickname was Mr. Padre and his personality endeared him to everybody.

In an era of spoiled athletes, Gwynn was the every-day guy who got along with everybody. Well, everyone but Jack Clark and since Clark was a jerk of the highest order, there’s no fault in that.

Gwynn’s passing certainly makes it clear that life is unfair. He was the baseball coach at San Diego State and still had a lot to give to the younger generation. It is hard to believe that the baseball Gods in the sky need him up in the heavens this badly.

People in San Diego first learned of Gwynn as a college basketball player at San Diego State – he had a big afro while becoming the school’s all-time assists leader and ate an abundance of Filet-O-Fish sandwiches at McDonald’s – and had no clue he was even good at baseball until he was drafted by the Padres on the same day the San Diego Clippers took him in the NBA Draft.

Didn’t take long after Gwynn reached the majors to know there was something special going on. He sprayed line drives all over the field and easily sent bouncers through the 5.5-hole into left field.

The Padres had been a franchise of mostly nothingness until Gwynn arrived and he led them to the only two World Series in franchise history. He hit a memorable homer off the façade in Yankee Stadium in the second one back in 1998.

I will always wonder what might have happened in 1994 if a baseball strike didn’t end the season early. Gwynn was batting .394 when play was halted and had been in a season-long groove and was robbed of his best chance at a .400 season.

Gwynn became San Diego State’s baseball coach while I covered the San Diego State athletic program and our professional relationship was a bit interesting.

Most of the time he was terrific to deal with but I had to go toe-to-toe with him a few times as the only reporter willing to ask him tough questions. He could be hard to deal with after a frustrating loss and I will never forget the ridiculous chewing out I received from him near the first-base line on the University of San Diego baseball field when I raised a subject he was trying to avoid.

But the other side of the equation was this: There were several times when I showed up in his office on a couple minutes’ notice – try doing that with an egotistical football coach – and he’d fill up my notebook for a half-hour before baseball practice started. Sometimes he would be eating lunch and he’d try to yank my chain and then bust out his familiar laugh.

And you know, when I called him on his cell phone, he nearly always returned the call. Promptly.

I remember him being frustrated that my newspaper didn’t allow me to cover more San Diego State baseball games and it allowed me to come up with this catchy retort:

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

The first part of that sentence now rings more true than ever. The greatest baseball player in Padres history and most beloved athlete to ever play in San Diego is gone way too soon.

And there’s no shame in crying about that.


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