Tuesday, June 17, 2014
SAN DIEGO (AP) — There were two certainties about Tony Gwynn: He could hit a baseball like few other major leaguers, and he was going to laugh.
Gwynn was a craftsman at the plate, whose sweet left-handed swing made him one of baseball's greatest hitters.
The Hall of Famer died Monday of oral cancer, a disease he attributed to years of chewing tobacco. He was 54.
Any knowledgeable fan can recite Gwynn's key stats. He had 3,141 hits — 18th on the all-time list — a career .338 average and won eight batting titles to tie Honus Wagner's NL record.
There was far more to the man.
In a rarity in pro sports, Gwynn played his whole career with the Padres, choosing to stay in the city where he was a two-sport college star rather than leaving for bigger paychecks elsewhere.
He was loyal, generous and approachable. He smiled a lot. It didn't take much to get him to laugh his hearty laugh.
Gwynn loved San Diego. San Diego loved "Mr. Padre" right back.
His death left even casual fans grieving.
"Our city is a little darker today without him, but immeasurably better because of him," Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a statement.
Five things to remember about Gwynn:
HIS CRAFT: After spending parts of just two seasons in the minors, he made his big league debut on July 19, 1982. Gwynn had two hits that night. After Gwynn doubled, career hits leader Pete Rose, who been trailing the play, said to him: "Hey, kid, what are you trying to do, catch me in one night?"
On Monday, Rose recalled Gwynn's work ethic and his pioneering use of video to study his at-bats after every game.
"Every day you went to the ballpark in San Diego and we used to go 2:30 or 3 o'clock, Tony would be out there hitting, religiously, every day," Rose said.
"Fifty-four years old is way too young."
THE LAUGH: Former Padres teammate Tim Flannery recalls Gwynn as "always laughing, always talking, always happy."
It didn't take much for Gwynn to cackle or break into a horse laugh.
"He had a work ethic unlike anybody else, and had a childlike demeanor of playing the game just because he loved it so much," said Flannery, third base coach for the San Francisco Giants.
THE 5.5 HOLE: Gwynn loved to hit the other way, through the hole between third base and shortstop.
"All I keep thinking of when I think of Tony Gwynn is that line drive base hit to left field, or the one-hopper in the hole at shortstop to left field," Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully said. "He hit the ball wherever it was pitched, and he was just a genius with the bat, without a doubt."
SAN DIEGO STATE: Gwynn had been on a medical leave since late March from his job as baseball coach at San Diego State, his alma mater. He called it his dream job, one he began right after retiring from the Padres following the 2001 season. He coached his son, Tony Jr., who's with the Philadelphia Phillies.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Gwynn played point guard for the SDSU basketball team — he still holds the game, season and career record for assists — and in the outfield on the baseball team.
He was drafted by both the Padres (third round) and San Diego Clippers (10th round) on the same day in 1981. As much as he loved basketball, baseball was his future.
Texas' Augie Garrido, the winningest college baseball coach, said at the College World Series on Monday that he tried to recruit Gwynn when he was coaching at Cal State Fullerton, but told him he wouldn't be able to play baseball and basketball.
Because baseball would be well underway by the time basketball ended, "You'd have to be one hell of a baseball player to be break into the lineup," Garrido recalled telling Gwynn.
"He decided to go to San Diego State. After he won his seventh batting title at Dodger Stadium on the last day of the season, he broke that story to the LA Times. He didn't leave out one bit of information about how stupid I was. That's why my recruiting genius is limited," said Garrido, who added he and Gwynn had a good relationship.
TERRIFIC TONY: Gwynn struck out only 434 times in 9,288 career at-bats. He played in San Diego's only two World Series — batting a combined .371 — and was a 15-time All-Star. He had a home run in Game 1 of the 1998 World Series off fellow San Diegan David Wells and scored the winning run in the 1994 All-Star Game despite a bum knee.
Gwynn never hit below .309 in a full season. He spread his batting titles from 1984, when he batted .351, to 1997, when he hit .372.
Gwynn was hitting .394 when a players' strike ended the 1994 season, denying him a shot at becoming the first player to hit .400 since San Diego native Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941.
AP Sports Writers Janie McCauley and Eric Olson, and Associated Press Writer Pat Eaton-Robb contributed to this report.
Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/berniewilson