Tony Gwynn was one of the best hitters baseball has ever seen. There was nothing a pitcher could throw at him that he wouldn’t figure out how to get his bat on. He just found ways to not let anything beat him when he was at the plate. On Monday morning the sad news broke that he had finally run into something he couldn’t overcome.
Tony Gwynn, Mr. Padre, passed away Monday at the age of 54 after a long and courageous battle with cancer.
I grew up in San Diego and had the privilege of watching Gwynn lay waste to opposing pitchers for most of his remarkable 20-year career. In an era when power was emphasized, Gwynn was a maestro with his bat, using savvy, not raw strength to produce offense. The man won eight batting titles, topped 200 hits five times and finished his career with 3,141 knocks.
Gwynn was named to 15 All-Star teams, won seven Silver Slugger Awards and five Gold Gloves. He hit safely in an astonishing 75 percent of the games in which he played during his career and finished with a career batting average of .338. He also hit above .300 in each of his final 19 MLB seasons, a streak only second to Ty Cobb.
I could take up 3,000 words overwhelming you with Gwynn’s ridiculous numbers, but instead I’ll say this: put plainly, he was the best pure hitter since Ted Williams, a man he grew close to later in his career.
But Gwynn also changed baseball fundamentally, as he was the first player to use video as a way to improve his swing and pick up the tendencies of opposing pitchers. He would spend hours in video rooms breaking down the game, a practice that seems so typical now but was considered radical at the time.
Gwynn was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007 on his first ballot and garnered an astonishing 97.61 percent of the vote.
In an era of disposable superstars who changed teams every few years, Gwynn also played his entire career for the San Diego Padres, refusing to leave town for a bigger payday or a possible championship chase late in his career. He was the backbone of San Diego sports, and along with Junior Seau and Trevor Hoffman, gave San Diegans stars they could not only cheer for, but also look up to.
Since 2002, Gwynn had been the head baseball coach at his alma mater, San Diego State, and kept the job despite his long battle with cancer.
I had the privilege of interviewing Gwynn on at least a dozen occasions. He could not have been more gracious, accommodating, friendly or nice. He put everyone around him at ease with a laugh or a smile and was always fun to talk to. He was also great with fans and almost always willing to sign autographs or just have a chat. He was visible around town all the time and didn’t hide from his admirers. In high school I played in a fall basketball league schools used as a tune up for the regular season. One of the schools in our league was Poway High School, and one of that team’s stars was his son, Anthony Jr., and Tony was almost always at the games. It was surreal to see a gigantic sports superstar lugging around camera equipment so he could shoot video of his son’s preseason basketball games.
In 1997 Gwynn had surgery to remove a non-malignant parotid tumor and underwent a similar procedure in 2007. But when Gwynn went back for another surgery in September of 2010 doctors found a malignancy and he began to undergo radiation and chemotherapy. He had battled the disease on and off ever since. A smokeless tobacco user for years, Gwynn was convinced that was the cause of his cancer, and he had become an advocate of banning all tobacco products from baseball fields and leagues.
Unfortunately, Gwynn finally lost his battle with cancer Monday morning.
While his smile, laugh and personality will never be forgotten, the world is a darker place today now that he is gone. As a longtime fan, it’s always hard to let go of your heroes. Right now, I’m really struggling with the fact that Tony is no longer with us. I’ll have to content myself with remembering all that I got to see him do and all the times he astonished me with his achievements. And I’ll have to get through today by remembering what an incredible human being he was away from the game as well.
Thanks for everything Tony, you were the best I ever saw play the game, but more importantly you were a guy I was proud to root for.