Yesterday, Tony Gwynn died at age 54. Gwynn finally lost his battle with cancer stemming from smokeless tobacco usage.
I wasn’t surprised. During my last couple of trips to San Diego to cover the University of San Diego and Gwynn’s San Diego State team, I had been told Tony was struggling and getting worse rather than better.
Since he left the San Diego State team in March, he had been in and out of the hospital and one player said the team hadn’t seen Gwynn since his departure.
But Tony was a fighter, so for the first time, I hoped my sources were wrong. I hoped the stories from San Diego State were the truth — that Tony was doing better and hoping to rejoin the team soon. I knew better, but I still hoped for the school updates to be more than a mask to protect the Gwynn family’s privacy.
Instead, I woke up to text messages and an ESPN alert informing me of Mr. Padre’s passing. Not to make this about me, but I’m the type that compartmentalizes, so I’m much more likely to make a joke or an off-comment rather than feel sad initially over someone’s death. And I typically rail on people that claim to be sad because of the death of a “celebrity” they never knew even if they may have actually met the person.
But Tony Gwynn was the person that made you feel like you knew him after meeting him once. There’s a reason why everyone seems to have a story and why so many people wrote remembrance pieces on Gwynn. Most of them are probably much better than this and I encourage you to read the words of those that knew him even better than me.
His beaming smile is what many people remember. Even after having facial reconstruction surgery and losing the usage of the right side of his face, the cancer couldn’t stop his smile. The left side of his face just beamed a little brighter.
I put away any thoughts about Gwynn during the day yesterday. I had lunch to attend and a pair of College World Series games to cover. But late last night before I left the press box, I decided I wanted to hear Tony’s voice again.
Having covered Southern California college baseball for the last three years, I’ve interviewed every SoCal coach multiple times, but the team I covered least and coach I talked to least was San Diego State. Frankly, the Aztecs weren’t good enough to warrant the drive two years ago.
He took over at his alma mater in 2002 and had relatively little success early. Like many former professional players that become college coaches, Gwynn had his troubles figuring out the quagmire of college baseball recruiting where scholarships are partial and you have to actively hope your commits aren’t too good.
But Gwynn had a knack for spotting hidden talent in guys like future No. 1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg, who went undrafted out of high school, but led the Aztecs to their first Regional appearance under Gwynn in 2009.
In the last few years, the Aztecs brought in more talent and finally got everything to click last year in the Mountain West Tournament. They played their way into the NCAA Tournament by winning four straight games after an early loss in the Mountain West Tournament.
They built on last year’s experience and put together another solid campaign in 2014, winning the Mountain West Tournament and advancing to Regionals once again, but Gwynn left the team in March after falling ill again.
When I first interviewed Tony Gwynn after a loss at UC Irvine two years ago, he was disappointed in his young team making too many mental mistakes and said he had laid into them pretty good after the game, but like every time I would talk to him, he was optimistic in the future of the club.
Despite just taking a four-game sweep at the hands of Oregon State early in the 2013 season, Gwynn was very gracious and positive about the program and team. You could see him get excited when talking about his players.
Though he was a pure hitter and could talk hitting for days, he loved to talk about his pitchers. He gushed about Bubba Derby‘s potential and he smiled before starting to answer a question about the power arms of Michael Cederoth and Philip Walby, maybe he saw two formidable opponents.
He didn’t remember me from our Irvine interaction, but told me he’d look for me in the future and gave me his number. I don’t get awestruck very often, but when I got back to Los Angeles and my roommmate casually asked how my trip to San Diego went, I couldn’t help buy say, “Dude, I got Tony Gwynn’s number!”
When I saw him again at the Los Angeles Regional, he remembered me and called me by name. This year, when I went down to San Diego to catch some of San Diego and San Diego State’s early games one weekend, Gwynn ragged on me for still having a USD press pass on my shirt from a game earlier in the day.
If there was one thing Gwynn was staunch about, it was his passion for SDSU and his disdain for San Diego. It was a rivalry he knew as a player and as a coach and he tried to convey that to his players…and even a media guy with a University of San Diego press pass still sticking to his shirt.
When we chatted that night, after a 2-1 extra-inning win over West Virgina, he talked about how his team had matured and how they might have lost the same game the season before. He expected his 2014 squad to be good and it was. The Aztecs again battled through the Mountain West Tournament loser’s bracket to take the championship and celebrated on UNLV’s home field — with Gwynn symbolically there.
Tony Gwynn was absent in the dugout throughout the second half of the season, but his presence wasn’t in the final month. San Diego State carried around a bobblehead of Gwynn. “Lil’ Tony” accompanied the team wherever they played and he was in associate head coach Mark Martinez’s hands as the team was handed the Mountain West Tournament trophy. Even though he wasn’t with the team, he was still on their minds.
Though I may have said hello to him when San Diego State played at Cal State Northridge, our chat after the West Virginia win was our final meaningful conversation. So last night when no one else but the cleaning crew remained in TD Ameritrade Park, I listened to our final conversation once more.
I could hear his smile — the smile that everyone who met him will always remember.
Rest in peace, Anthony Keith Gwynn, Sr.
***Feel free to leave your fondest Tony Gwynn memories in the comments section below.