Tony Gwynn was Great Far Beyond the Numbers
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