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As you know Hall of Fame baseball player Tony Gwynn died Monday at the young age of 54. Most people who read my posts know that he’s the 19th ranked hitter in all time hits, and his career batting average of .338 left him tied at 18th all time, and that the only hitter from 1940 through the modern day ahead of him is Ted Williams. Incidentally, contemporary Hall of Fame hitters Wade Boggs and Rod Carew (to whom he is most often compared) rank 33rd and 34th respectively.

Photo credit: Galaksiafervojo via Wikipedia

Photo credit: Galaksiafervojo via Wikipedia

We know of the abundance of awards he won, the batting titles and the All-Star games. His stats are readily available at any myriad of sites, but Mr. Padre is and was far more than the sum of his statistics. He could easily have been Mr. Baseball, or Mr. San Diego, as a kid who grew up there, played high school ball there, played college baseball about two hours from home at Long Beach State, and then returned home and played his entire career with the Padres. He even went on to coach the San Diego State Baseball team after his playing days ended.

The Gwynn family is a baseball tradition. Tony is clearly its leader, but his brother Chris played several years and son Tony Jr. is currently playing with the Phillies. Sr.’s attention to detail and video taping of all of his at bats throughout his career revolutionized hitting, and the art of analyzing both hitters and pitchers for the entire future of the game.

In today’s world it’s easy to see a tribute via Facebook.com or Twitter, but with their force-fed information streams it can also be easier for those tributes to quickly become yesterday’s news.

I believe Tony deserves better than that. I want to leave a lasting record of what he meant to me and to some of his friends, colleagues, and other baseball and sports dignitaries. Here’s what they have said about Mr. Gwynn.

Former Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager Fred Claire on his Facebook page:

“Tony gained the respect of everyone involved in baseball. He was one of the great hitters of all-time but he was so much more than that. He was kind and honest and humble. He had a way of making everyone feel welcome and comfortable around him. Tony Gwynn represents the very best of baseball and of life itself.”

Former NFL QB and current NFL Analyst Sean Salisbury backed that statement on his Facebook page:

“I’m sickened by the loss of Tony Gwynn. Great player. Better man! Special man. I Remember I called him one day and asked if he would give hitting Lessons to my 2 boys. He said yes. A few days later 3 plus hours out of his day teaching my kids to hit. Oh btw- he wouldn’t accept a penny for it. Tears today for the loss of a wonderful family man!”

After reading his post, I asked Sean when this took place and he stated it was while Tony was the head coach at San Diego State. If anyone knows coaching — and especially college coaching — free time is something that just doesn’t exist. But this is the kind of guy that Tony Gwynn was 24/7 365. He loved the game, and he always wanted to help others love the game and play the game as well.

Former major league outfielder and MLB Network jack of all trades Darryl Hamilton: wrote a message for me on Gwynn that showed how well he treated people and, to Darryl’s surprise, how closely he paid attention to the players on other teams. From Darryl:

“Tony Gwynn was a class act, plain and simple. A great player and great person. I met him for the first time when I was able to play against him in 1997 while playing for the [San Francisco] Giants. Always respected him but a little embarrassed with meeting such a great player, he could not have been better. It was like Tony was playing in little league against the greatest players in world. Always with a smile on his face, he took BP to another level with precise swings going to left, center; then pulled the ball toward right field. My favorite memory was after we both were done playing, I did a game on TV with San Diego State playing and talked to him after the game with a couple of his players and he introduced me as a great big league player to his guys. That’s when it hit me that the great Tony Gwynn actually noticed my game and that is the best compliment I’ve ever received.

I was just about to board a plane when the news broke and have not been able to talk to my boys about it but will explain how important it is to put in the work and always expect the best like Tony did. For me personally, I’ve lost 2 of the most influential players I’ve looked up to as a player in MLB with Tony and Kirby Puckett. The two men, although different in their approach, were the best players during my era with hard work, dedication and [they] enjoyed being a big league player. That’s something that you don’t see any more in this game.”

Coupling off of what Darryl talked about with Tony’s routine in the batter’s box, Gwynn may very well have redefined hitting and the job of a hitting coach, with his thousands of hours of recordings. He recorded every at bat of his career and thanks to tireless hours self critiquing to near perfection most MLB players now have recordings readily available to analyze every nuance of the game.

For me, the best Gwynn moment wasn’t even of him playing. It was the 1999 All-Star Game pregame ceremony honoring the great Ted Williams. Tony helped a frail Williams out of his golf cart, and helped steady him for the ceremonial first pitch. The embrace between legends of different times, cultures and colors brought the human condition, the greatness of the game, and so much of what I cherish in life together in a brief exchange. It transcended time, and was just right and good. To me, that is the best way I can describe Tony Gwynn.

And then I have my own great Tony Gwynn memory. It took place during a weekend trip to Wrigley Field in 1996 over Father’s Day weekend — coincidentally 18 years ago to the day of Tony’s passing. Andy and I saw the late Captain Kangaroo throw the ceremonial first pitch. We sang along with the late Harry Caray for Take Me out to the Ball Game. We saw Sammy Sosa pre-steroids and the return of HOF second baseman Ryne Sandberg for the Cubs. But for me, an American League kid pre interleague play, the weekend was about Wrigley and about Gwynn.

That was my last Father’s Day before becoming a dad, and while it may not be the biggest event in the world’s history … growing up without a father that was my first Father’s Day memory, and it was all about getting to see the greatest average hitter of my lifetime — Tony Gwynn. The Baseball world lost a great ambassador. But the great tragedy is that at 54 years old, the world lost a class act. And his family, friends and fans around the country and world will mourn this loss for a very long time.

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3 Responses to Great player, better man: Tony Gwynn gone too soon

  • craig hink says:

    He was one of the best ever. I loved watching him play.
    A great human being off the field too.
    Thank you for posting this!

  • Brad says:

    The one thing I would like to touch on that I really didn’t want as a part of this was the cancer of the saliva glands. I may write a piece on that, and thinking of that road trip to Wrigley makes me wonder if the world is ready for my Rickey Henderson stories…

  • Michael says:

    Tony was always such a class act. He played the game for the love of it,he could have left and signed Rodriguez like contract many times over but declined because he loved his Padres. Far too few players realize that sometimes it more important to have fun then make a dollar.
    What is cool is when you see a player like Derek Jeter and his style of play,you know Tony was one of the pioneers of that….class,dignity, champion. Great article,Brad.

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