Thursday, June 19, 2014

Goodbye, Mr. Padre

It was the summer of 1982, and I was a still young 21-year old baseball fan who was beginning to take notice of something happening within the game that I had followed for about a dozen years.

The heroes of the game in my childhood were beginning to age, and some were even retiring. For example, Reggie Jackson and Jim Palmer were 37 years old. Johnny Bench was 35, playing in his final season.

Even my own beloved Philadelphia Phillies, strong contenders for the last 7-8 years, and World Series champions just 2 years earlier were aging with core veterans like Pete Rose (41), Steve Carlton (37), and Tug McGraw (37) getting long in the tooth. Even Mike Schmidt was then 33 years old. Still a strong MVP candidate, but even Schmitty was sliding inevitably towards the back end of his own career.

But as I was coming to adulthood, and that generation of ballplayers from my childhood was fading away, I was also noticing that in those early-mid 1980's a new, younger generation of ballplayers was coming along, all of them my own age or just a couple years older. Over the next decade and more, these players such as Cal Ripken Jr, Kirby Puckett, Daryl Strawberry, Ryne Sandberg, and Wade Boggs among others would provide many memorable moments to the game.

Among those new, emerging players was a sweet-swinging, athletic outfielder with the Padres out in San Diego by the name of Tony Gwynn who had begun his career with a mid-summer callup on July 19th, 1982. In that first game, Gwynn went 2-4, scoring one run and driving in another in a 7-6 loss to the Phillies, who were led by homeruns from Schmidt and catcher Bo Diaz.

Hitting 5th in the Padres batting order that night, Gwynn provided a 1st inning sacrifice fly in his first big league plate appearance against Phils' starter Mike Krukow that scored Tim Flannery and gave San Diego an early 2-0 lead. His two hits later that evening were the first of 3,141 in his career. It would be the first of many successful moments and games for Tony Gwynn in what would prove to be a 20-year Hall of Fame career.

After that break-in campaign in 1982 during which he hit a more than respectable .289, Gwynn would never again hit less than .309 in a season. He would hit more than .330 in nine different seasons, over .350 in seven of those seasons, winning 8 National League batting titles. He would lead the league in hits 7 times, and was a 14-time NL All-Star. Though he never won an MVP award, he finished in the Top 10 of the voting 7 times. Gwynn also won 5 Gold Gloves for his excellent play in right field.

Tony Gwynn was remarkably consistent, hitting and producing under virtually any set of circumstances. He hit .343 at home and .334 on the road. He hit .340 at night and .334 in day games. He hit .337 outdoors and .351 inside in domed stadiums. He hit .339 on grass, and .334 on artificial turf surfaces. Gwynn was especially strong in the clutch, hitting .354 in the 9th inning of games, and .393 in extra innings. He hit .326 in tie game situations, .321 with 2 outs and runners in scoring position, and .353 in situations where it was late in games and the score was close.

Over those 20 seasons in Major League Baseball, Tony Gwynn played in 180 games against the Phillies, starting 168 times, and had 768 plate appearances against them. Gwynn hit .346 with a .400 on-base percentage, figures just a little above his overall career averages. He wore out Phillies pitching the way he wore out everyone. He hit over .300 against every single team that he faced more than 100x in his career, over .330 against all but two teams.

He was nicknamed "Mr. Padre" for spending his entire 2-decades career in San Diego and leading them to the franchise's only two World Series appearances following the 1984 and 1998 seasons. The Padres lost both of those Series to the Tigers 4-1 and the Yankees 4-0 respectively. Gwynn made the final out of that 1984 Series. He also homered off David Wells in the 1998 Series opener, a moment that he called the greatest hit and highlight of his career.

He was also nicknamed "Captain Video" as a nod to his relentless watching of videos of his own at-bats, as well as videos of opposing pitchers. Gwynn was one of the first to actively embrace video, becoming almost obsessive in trying to obtain any slight advantage, advance his skills, and improve his performance and results. He bought his own video equipment, his wife would tape his at-bats, and he would bring the equipment with him throughout his baseball travels.

Tony Gwynn was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2007, but that didn't end Gwynn's contributions to the game. He became the head coach at his college alma mater, San Diego State University, where he compiled a 363-363 career record and guided the school to three Mountain West Conference championships and three NCAA tourney appearances, only endearing him more to the folks in his adopted hometown.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Gwynn attended high school in Long Beach, attended college in San Diego, and of course played in MLB with San Diego. He was a California kid all the way through. His was a baseball family, with brother Chris Gwynn also playing in MLB, and the two brothers even briefly played together with the Padres. Tony's only son Tony Gwynn Jr is a Major Leaguer today, currently playing with the Phillies. Gwynn also had a daughter and 3 granddaughters.

In 2010, Tony Gwynn was first diagnosed with cancer of the salivary gland, and he had lymph nodes and tumors from the gland removed. This began a battle over the next four years through radiation, chemotherapy, and surgeries with varying degrees of success. Three days ago, on June 16th, 2014, Tony Gwynn died from complications of his cancer. He was just 54 years old. Gwynn himself attributed his cancer to his lifelong addiction to chewing tobacco. His cancer and death should be a warning call to stay away from this awful, addictive, and dangerous product.

Tony Gwynn was one of the greatest "pure hitters" that I have personally ever seen in the game of baseball. That term "pure hitter" is generally reserved for those players who maintain an abnormally high batting average, but with little power. Gwynn was at the elite end of the scale in that regard, rivaled only during my lifetime by Wade Boggs, Rod Carew, and Pete Rose.

Over the past couple of days, and no doubt continuing over the next few and through this season, the fans of the San Diego Padres as well as baseball fans across America and around the world will be remembering and memorializing one of the greats of the game. For me, Tony Gwynn was my age. He is one of the first of my contemporaries to pass, and thus is particularly special to me. RIP, Mr. Padre, and enjoy the next life with your heavenly Father. You will not be forgotten as long as people who love the game of baseball as much as I do are left in this life.

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