It’s true what you hear about the late Tony Gwynn. Not only was he one of the greatest contact hitters in baseball history, he was one of the nicest people in the industry. His conditioned worsened significantly in the past few months – he was suffering from seizures – and San Diego State basketball coach Steve Fisher told me only last Friday that everyone in the Aztecs athletic department was worried and anticipating the worst.
Gwynn, who died at age 54, believed his cancer was caused by his career-long habit of chewing tobacco. A quick synopsis of his Hall of Fame career, spent entirely with the San Diego Padres, includes the following: a career .338 batting average, 15 All-Star teams, five Gold Glove awards, eight National League batting titles, and his presence on the 1984 and 1988 NL Championship teams.
For a San Diego community starved for success, the Padres’ first NL title against the Chicago Cubs in 1984 remains one of region’s cherished moments. The series-clincher at Jack Murphy Stadium – where the Chargers continue to play – featured a dramatic home run by Steve Garvey and the between-the-legs groundball gaffe by Leon Durham. Hours after the NL championship was secured, Gwynn joined several of his teammates who came out of the clubhouse and ran laps around the field, spraying champagne, blowing kisses and high-fiving the exuberant fans.
But that same team that included reserve catcher Bruce Bochy, a long-haired surfer Tim Flannery as a utility infielder, and was managed by the crusty, but brilliant Dick Williams, has been struck by tragedy and the too-early passing of several players. Alan Wiggins and Eric Show succumbed to drugs. Champ Summers and now Gwynn lost their battles with cancer. Dave Dravecky’s career ended prematurely after a malignant tumor was discovered in his left arm.
Gwynn, who battled persistent weight problems, often talked about playing in the NBA career. He was a two-sport star at San Diego State – a star outfielder and a chunky, but heady point guard – and was drafted by the Padres (third round) and San Diego Clippers (10th round) on the same day in 1981.
Affable and engaging, emerged as a beloved, and tremendously loyal figure. He spurned larger offers from other clubs to remain with the Padres, and upon retirement, took over the Aztecs baseball program. Though he missed most of this past season with complications from cancer, the administration – in a rare display of compassion in this modern era — extended his contract through next season.
When I remember the years in San Diego with Tony Gwynn? I will remember his cherubic features, his high-pitched laugh, his insights and engaging personality, and the fact that he was an absolute delight to be around. And this: he rued the day he started chewing tobacco.