The shocking news that blind-sided the baseball community from coast to coast is likely to linger for a while. It just didn’t seem possible. But when folks finally come to grips with the passing of Tony Gwynn, fond memories of one of the game’s true icons will help ease the pain.
Tony’s death was the second devastating blow to the gut in less than six months for San Diego Padres fans, who had barely recovered from the loss of longtime play-by-play announcer Jerry Coleman. Both men have majestic statues that punctuate Padres history at Petco Park, and the bronze likeness of Gwynn has received scores of grieving admirers in recent days. Tony had battled an aggressive form of salivary gland cancer since 2010, and the challenging surgeries and treatments had periodically put his coaching and broadcasting endeavors on hold.
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A first-ballot Cooperstown inductee in 2007, we all knew Tony Gwynn was a magnificent player. It was also true that he was a Hall of Fame person off the field. This kindhearted, jovial man was a unique hero to everyone. His genuine, trademark laugh was contagious and brought joy everywhere he was present.
It was Tony’s choice to spend an entire two-decade playing career in San Diego, even though more money beckoned from larger sports markets. And he remained in that city after retiring in 2001 to explore other opportunities. Although he deserved the title of “Mr. Padre,” Gwynn might as well have been called “Mr. San Diego.” Had he thrown his hat into the mayoral race earlier this month, Tony would have probably won.
Tony Gwynn broke in with the Padres in 1982 when I was still a scout with the organization. It was evident, even then, that he was destined to be a special player. The amazing season he had two years later when the Padres surprised the baseball world confirmed it. But I would later discover another side of Tony that I found equally impressive.
In 1995, Tony and his wife, Alicia, launched the TAG Foundation, a program designed to promote local youngsters into becoming healthy, educated and productive citizens. Tony clearly cared about kids and felt they were sometimes exposed to a society where notions of good and bad were often skewed. He also used his fame to create fundraisers for baseball charities throughout San Diego County, including the Jackie Robinson YMCA, the RBI program and Tecolote Youth Baseball. The icing on the cake came in 1999 when Gwynn received the coveted Roberto Clemente Award, the game’s highest off-field honor.
In 2003, Gwynn proved that he could teach as well as he played when he became head coach at San Diego State University. He proudly put his alma mater back on the college baseball map after a long rebuilding period and led the team to an NCAA postseason berth in 2009. It was the first time the Aztecs made it to the dance in 17 years. The squad featured ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who called Coach Gwynn his “mentor and father-figure.”
As a side gig, Tony also made his way to the broadcast booth as a color analyst. His candid, informative insight could be heard on ESPN and during divisional playoffs on TBS. Gwynn was also a familiar figure during Padres home games on FOX, although illness kept him from appearing this year. Declining health also forced Tony to take a leave absence from directing his beloved Aztecs this season, although the team he built once again qualified for the national tournament.
Nobody wanted to believe that the end was near. Tony’s contract at SDSU was extended through 2015 and only weeks ago, he became involved in a craft beer company. The product would be called Pale Ale 394, which was Gwynn’s batting average in 1994 when he almost joined Ted Williams in a very exclusive club. Even Tony’s popular television car commercials were still being aired.
Tony Gwynn, who was only 54, left us far too soon. Somehow, it doesn’t seem fair that this wonderful man who blessed our lives in so many ways is now gone. But we must remember the good times and celebrate his life, because those moments will never leave us.
Besides, I know that’s what Tony would want us to do.