Though peerless on field, Gwynn an everyman
Sense of humor made first-ballot Hall of Famer a shining light in Padres clubhouses
On this sad day, it's the laughter we remember. Lord knows, that laugh is one of the things we're going to miss most about Tony Gwynn. It filled clubhouses and dugouts all across baseball these last 33 years, and weren't we the lucky ones?
It had a piercing quality thanks to the high pitch of Gwynn's voice. That voice had the softest touch of a twang, too. On some level, that twang made no sense since he spent his entire life in San Diego, but it seemed to fit this amazing man with the huge heart and the everyman quality, who died on Monday morning at 54.
Today, if you ask almost anyone who played with Tony Gwynn or managed him or covered him -- in fact, if you ask any of the thousands of people he touched in his time on earth -- there's a good chance they'll mention that laugh.
Even as cancer ravaged Gwynn's body the last few years, friends say his optimism remained intact, his will as strong as ever. During 20 years with the Padres, Tony Gwynn simply never seemed to have a bad day, and as legacies go, that's about as good as it gets. That laugh was accompanied by a smile that charmed an entire sport -- and an entire city.
It was a sneaky, sly smile, a smile that made Gwynn accessible to almost everyone. He would show up four hours before game time, sometimes with a couple of cheeseburgers, and he would do a very decent imitation of the happiest man on earth.
Gwynn said he learned something new every day at the ballpark and couldn't wait to get there. He greeted almost everyone who came through the door. Gwynn would tease them and laugh with them, or at them. He would dress slowly, as if enjoying every moment, as if he was determined to savor every minute he got to spend at the ballpark.
And Gwynn held court with anyone -- with teammates and reporters, with opposing players ... with anyone, really. Today, there are hundreds and hundreds of people -- teammates, clubhouse attendants, front-office employees -- who are grieving because this remarkable man made all of them feel important.
Baseball people -- those who played with Tony Gwynn, those who played against him -- were in awe of his talent. In the wake of his death, there'll be plenty of coverage focused on the fact that he made the most difficult game on earth look absolutely easy.
Gwynn was an amazingly gifted athlete, a kid who went to San Diego State on a basketball scholarship and didn't even play baseball his first two years. Once he turned to baseball, though, he did things that will be talked about forever.
Yes, Gwynn had amazing physical gifts. To be able to -- and this is The Tony Gwynn Moment -- foul off unhittable pitch after unhittable pitch, and then pick out the one he wanted and ground it between third and short, to do that so routinely and so easily, is stuff that can't be explained.
On the other hand, don't for a second think the game came easily for Gwynn. He worked relentlessly. Gwynn was a video addict before it was fashionable. He would sometimes have his wife, Alicia, tape games on television so he could study them later.
Gwynn understood pitching, too. Giants coach Tim Flannery, a teammate and friend, told the San Diego Union-Tribune of walking back to the hotel in Cincinnati after a game had been suspended.
"Hey, Flan, I want you to be ready tomorrow, because this guy's gonna throw me a first-pitch slider, I'm gonna hit it into the left-center gap, it's gonna score two and we're gonna be tied," Flannery remembered Gwynn saying.
That's exactly how it played out the next day, and Flannery said the best part of the story was that Gwynn knew what the pitcher was going to throw before the pitcher knew.
Gwynn won eight National League batting titles for the Padres and retired in 2001 with a .338 career batting average, the highest in 62 years. His 3,141 hits are the 19th most in history, and he got 97.6 percent of the vote the first time his name appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in December 2006.
Hitters could study Gwynn's approach forever. He approached every at-bat like a game within the game. Gwynn knew what weapons the pitcher had and how he used them. He knew his own strengths, too -- that is attacking the strike zone, using the entire field. He analyzed the game from every angle, but when he stepped in the batter's box, Gwynn had the ability to strip everything away and focus on one or two things.
Yet to focus on his accomplishments is to miss a huge part of why Tony Gwynn's death hurts so many people. As another former teammate, Trevor Hoffman, said, Gwynn's life was one of grace and decency.
People liked Gwynn and were drawn to him on so many levels. He was someone everyone rooted for because he represented the best in all of us, not just in accomplishing great things, but doing so with humility and humor.
Gwynn battled cancer that way, too, with a toughness and a determination. In the end, his legacy will be all of those things, with the friends he made and the people he touched and the game he graced for 20 seasons.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.