Tony Gwynn was Great Far Beyond the Numbers

Event_Kids_Batting_Clinic_062611AH021Tony Gwynn early this morning entered a Hall of Fame bigger than Cooperstown.

There has to be a special wing in heaven for those who made a difference across the board.

Tony Gwynn is in that wing . . . right there with Jerry Coleman.

Yes, Tony Gwynn had great numbers on the field.

But I always loved more what Gwynn stood for . . . away from the glistening numbers that framed his illustrious playing career.

Tony Gwynn cared. He loved.

He loved San Diego . . . and San Diego State. He loved his family. He loved people. He loved the interaction that comes with life.

Many of my favorite Gwynn memories have nothing to do with Gwynn’s astounding abilities as a baseball player.

About 15 years ago, Tony and I were going to lunch in Mission Valley. As we approached the entrance to the restaurant, a young man of seven or eight took a flyer and landed face-first on the hard surface of the parking lot.

Tony walked over to the boy, who was crying as he was being consoled by his mother — who sort of recognized who Gwynn was. Tony helped sit the young man on the curb and excused himself as he walked back to his car. When he returned, Tony was carrying a game-used, autographed bat.

As he handed the bat to the young man, Gwynn asked “Do you know who I am?”

“The man who picked me up,” said the little boy.

Tony Gwynn burst into that laugh that San Diegans should remember for being as meaningful as his 3,141 hits.

At that point, the mother got it. “Oh my God,” she said. “Thank you so much.” She stood there not knowing what to do next. “I just hope your son doesn’t think he’s going to get a bat every time he goes face-first off the curb,” said Gwynn, breaking into another laugh as a small crowd gathered.

For the next five or 10 minutes, Gwynn signed autographs for an ever-growing group.

Later, Gwynn made an admission. “I liked that bat . . . there were a lot hits left in that bat.” Then he laughed.

Tony was toward the end of his career then. And the nation had long ago become aware of what San Diego knew. Tony Gwynn was a great baseball player.

But the rest of the nation wasn’t yet aware of why Gwynn was so special to use in this little corner of the nation.

Tony Gwynn was San Diego. He was here because he wanted to be here. He had opportunities during his career to go elsewhere for more money. But Tony never wanted to leave San Diego.

“I chose to live in San Diego coming out of high school,” Tony said of his decision to play basketball at San Diego State after graduating from Long Beach Poly. Yes, basketball. Tony didn’t play baseball at San Diego State right away.

“There was never a reason to leave.”

I remember how excited Gwynn was to be named the baseball coach at his alma mater. And I remember how he loved supplying commentary on Padres baseball telecasts.

“I love being around the game and young players,” said Gwynn, who avoided spending much time in the Padres clubhouse even when working games. “They have things to do before games,” he’d tell me. “They don’t need me down there.”

He was even hesitant to visit clubhouses when his son Anthony played for the Padres or visited Petco Park with another team. “It’s not my time,” he’d say.

Sorry, Tony, you were wrong. It was always your time.

I was honored to become a friend of Gwynn’s over the years. We’d sit in the broadcast booth or in the empty press box at Petco Park and talk at length about a number of things far beyond baseball. We’d talk on the phone as he drove back and forth from Poway to San Diego State.

I know what Tony hated most.

“As a player,” he once told me, “decisions were made by management or by myself. As a coach, I have to make decisions. The toughest thing I have to do is tell a player that his dream isn’t going to come true . . . that he can’t play at this or the next level. What right do I have to do that? I hate that part of the job.”

But Tony Gwynn love life, and baseball and people. He didn’t shake hands, he grabbed your hand. He’d hug near-total strangers. He was a bigger-than-life personality.

No superstar that I’ve ever met carried the title with more dignity and humility. During his career, he’d hold court at his cubicle every afternoon. He loved talking to the greenest of writers as well as the most veteran of baseball people. He made everyone feel comfortable and important.

He fought parotid cancer and a number of other medical issues with the same dignity and humility.

He joked last year about his battle against cancer. He never gave up. “I just don’t think they want me up there or they’d have come and got me,” Gwynn joked.

It turns out they did need him up there.

I love Tony Gwynn.

 

Related: Photo Gallery Remembering Mr. Padre

15 Comments

Great piece, Bill; a reminder that we knew him because of his prowess with the bat, but that’s not why we loved him. As a lifelong Padres fan who never lived near San Diego, I never had the chance to meet Tony. But for those of you who knew him, along with your grief, don’t forget to rejoice in how lucky you were to have him in your life.

On another note, glad to see you are still writing, Bill. I’ve stopped following the Friday chats; they just aren’t the same without you.

Thank you, Bill.

Thanks for the great piece, Bill. I along with the previous poster live far from my beloved Padres and Tony but was fortunate enough to see him play many, many times at Shea and once at the Murph. I can still remember the first time I spoke with Tony and got his autograph as an elementary aged kid standing behind the visiting dugout at Shea. “Tony! Tony!” To which he responded “WHAT?!” Then let out that magical chuckle and happily signed my ball. Since his HOF induction my father and I would travel up to Cooperstown each induction weekend to view the Museum and more importantly see Tony at a signing in town. This induction weekend will not be the same without him. Thank you Tony for the memories, you have no idea how much joy you brought to my childhood that I will always treasure. Rest in peace Mr. Padre.

Tony’s playing right field, right now, for the true All-Star team. And I have no doubt that when he comes up to bat next, he’s gonna punch one right up the 5.5 hole.

Thanks for sharing this with us!i myself was raised in san diego, and remember him going to my high school and talking about how he loved being a coach for san diego state university. And if we had aspirations to follow our dreams never to give up.great human being!may he rest in peace.

Great piece as always Bill. A friend sent it to me via Facebook. A sad day for San Diego.

Thank you for writing such a truthful and inspiring article about our beloved Mr. Padre. We love Tony Gwynn 💕

What a gift San Diego had & alway will ..the memories of Tony, His family, friends fans love ones Have been Blessed we will alway remember what a great man He was… Prayer to all that loved him

Bill, want to thank you for bringing Tony Gwynn to life. I never spent hours watching sports on TV, but I knew what Tony meant to San Diego. Good job. (a friend of Mike Kuttich).

This article helps capture the true essence of who Tony Gwynn was. He was so much more than a HOF baseball player. In era when loyalty to a community, to baseball fans, and certainly to one’s family was a rare commodity, Tony embraced and exemplified it.
In an industry where fidelity to one’s spouse and commitment to one’s family are challenged daily, Tony quietly, yet wholehearted accepted this challenge, demonstrating the utmost character.
My basement today is filled with Tony Gwynn memorabilia because my heart is filled with Tony Gwynn memories of a man who was bigger than real life, yet barely known by those outside of San Diego.
Whether it was catching up with Tony at Albertsons in Poway, or watching him perform in front of 60,000 in the 98′ World Series, he was the same person.
His laughter and gregariousness was only matched by his work ethic and compassion. Truly, heaven became a better place today. RIP Mr. Padre

Tony Gwynn=Role Model
Tony Gwynn=Family Man
Towns Gwynn=Gentleman
Tony Gwynn=Loyal
Tony Gwynn=Very Nice Guy
There are so many more ways to describe Tony Gwynn and I did not even mention baseball that he played much better than most.

Bill, I am so glad to have you writing for me. As I sit here on 700 acres in Missouri wishing I were there to leave flowers thinking of the 13 years Mom worked in the ticket office at Qualquam. I know when I am in town in August I will do it then.

My heart still aches but I have a memorial outside on my driveway and the neighbors stop and leave flowers for Tony here too. We are on the back road entrance to Lake of the Ozarks and many who pass aren’t neighbors. Still they will wave or honk if I am outside and send their wishes.

Iwill miss Tonys smile, laugh and goodness but will always cherish that I too was a bit closer than most. Tony loved Moms peach solar jelly she gave to the players for an extra good game.

Thank you Mr. Center for writing this wonderful tribute to Tony. We love him too.

Tony Gwynn! You will forever be missed. You left us much to soon. We love you!

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