Last month, on the anniversary of Junior Seau’s untimely passing, I read Ryan Phillips piece on the legendary Chargers linebacker from two years earlier. He hailed Seau as one of San Diego’s finest citizens. I wrote back to him hoping a similar article was not forthcoming on another San Diego icon.
After a long battle with a horrible, aggressive form of salivary gland cancer, Tony Gwynn died Monday in his Poway home, at the far too young age of 54.
Like Seau, Reggie White, Walter Payton and Kirby Puckett, Gwynn is another legend gone way before his time.
I have braced for the news, but it personally hit me like the passing of my parents. Hints in recent weeks included Gwynn taking a leave of presence from his duties coaching San Diego State baseball, to son Anthony Jr. wearing his dad’s 19 after blazing his own trail wearing different numbers with various organizations.
Tony Gwynn was the track of my early adulthood. For six years it was a privilege to be at Jack Murphy Stadium and watch him perform. And if I was not in person, I would either be glued to the television or radio, listening to Jerry Coleman, Dave Campbell and Ted Leitner marvel at his at bats, defensive play and sheer professionalism.
Gwynn was a two-sport star at San Diego State, rewriting the school record books in assists and excelling on the diamond. He was drafted by the Padres and San Diego Clippers on the same day in 1981. One year later he was in the majors. By 1984 he won the first of eight batting crowns and led the team to its first National League pennant.
A decade later, Gwynn was a threat to duplicate Ted Williams’ .400 season of a half-century earlier when the 1994 players strike occurred, cutting the season short. His .394 average from that year remains the best of any season since 1941.
And then there is this stat courtesy of Ryan Phillips: Gwynn hit .302 during his career with two strikes, best all time. Wade Boggs is second at a mere .260. The stat began being kept in 1988, but is still remarkable.
When Gwynn retired in 2001, radio host Jim Rome was distraught he would never interview him again as a player. At the time I assumed there would be many more years of listening to him talk baseball and hitting, as Ted Williams did for decades.
In his 20-year career, Gwynn only struck out three times in a game once. That came against Bob Welch on April 14, 1986. Welch himself died last week at the age of 57. Some things are too eerie.
On September 29, 2007 I attended a game between the Brewers and Padres at Milwaukee’s Miller Park. The Padres were three outs away from cementing a wild card berth when Tony Gwynn Jr. hit a game-tying triple off of San Diego closer Trevor Hoffman. The Padres would eventually miss the playoffs thanks to a loss to the Colorado Rockies in a one-game playoff. But Gwynn would join his father in San Diego the following season.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Native San Diegan and MSF columnist Ari Kaufman, also attended that game. A huge Padres fan, he remembers Gwynn similarly and texted me while traveling earlier…
“Tony was more than a ballplayer to young San Diegans in the 80s and 90s; he was something of an idol, though still maintained class and humility rarely seen today. I met the avuncular Padre many times at local baseball card shops and spring training in Yuma and Peoria, and watched him roam right field at Jack Murphy stadium when not ripping singles between short and third. He loved his fans, the city, life and especially the game. Way before the Internet, Tony was among the first to utilize and master video analysis, which helped make him the best left-handed hitter I’ve seen in three decades watching baseball. He’s gone way too soon and is already sorely missed.”
It is apropos that SDSU alum Kawhi Leonard took Most Valuable Player honors in the NBA Championship Series on Sunday night. Hopefully Tony was watching.
My San Diego Sports Mount Rushmore has Gwynn, Seau, Williams and Trevor Hoffman. My personal Rushmore is Gwynn, Robin Yount, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers.
Gwynn is my first chair on the San Diego monument.
The current Padres will play in Seattle tonight, because the schedule says so. When the team returns home Wednesday, hopefully they mark a spot on the 5.5 hole Tony Gwynn made famous.