I’m still in shock that Mr. Padre – Mr. San Diego as far as I’m concerned – is gone. Tony Gwynn, the best player the San Diego Padres ever had, died yesterday after a long battle with cancer of the salivary gland. He was 54 years old.
Losing Tony so young hasn’t just been devastating for me, but for everyone that calls the San Diego area home as well as those who once lived here. We didn’t lose the face of the local MLB franchise. We lost an icon.
Tony was the best hitter in my lifetime, and I was around when Rod Carew, Pete Rose and Bill Madlock were the dominant hitters in their eras. But Gwynn was much more than that. Tony became the pillar of our community. He gave his time and money to local charities, did local advertising for businesses, and made many appearances on television and radio to talk baseball.
There are too many favorite Tony Gwynn moments to mention. There was the Captain Video nickname he picked up early in his career when it became known he used game tape to study his hitting technique and opposing pitchers. There was the time Gwynn appeared on The Jim Rome Show, back when Romey was only on radio, and he did a funny imitation of Rickey Henderson talking in the third person that made us instant fans of Rickey upon his arrival in San Diego. Who can forget the ground ball he hit to Ryne Sandberg that turned the tide in the 1984 National League Championship Series? Or that bomb he hit to right field in Yankee Stadium off David Wells in the 1998 World Series?
In an era when major league baseball stars had bodies built by performance enhancing drugs, Gwynn had one built by Betty Crocker. He gave hope to pudgy men that they too could play professional sports at a high level yet not look like the stereotypical athlete.
Or as Jim Rome has said many times over the years, “Fat guys with skill rule!”
Tony Gwynn was special. He could have left San Diego whenever his contract came up, but chose to stay even when the money offered by the Padres wasn’t as much as what he could have made in larger markets. Gwynn could have rode off quietly into the sunset when he retired after the 2001 season, but he became the head coach at San Diego State University and continued to preach baseball gospel to his students as well as fans of both the Padres and Aztecs.
San Diegans will never forget Tony Gwynn for all the wonderful things he did for our community, and we were lucky to have him.