Death. It’s the most inevitable thing of this journey we call life. It is the one thing that everyone will eventually be able to claim as personally touching them. Everybody can’t even say that about birth because not everyone has their own children. Yet every one of us has or will eventually lose someone very close to them. It is lurking – sometimes even seeming to be stalking – in each and every one of us. The older we get, the less indestructible we feel. When we’re younger, that’s exactly how we feel. We don’t think about death because it seems to be so far in the future. But when we get to the age I am and you hear of people passing at a younger age than your own, it gets you thinking you’re not as invincible as you once thought.
That’s how the passing of Anthony Keith Gwynn Sr. felt to many people. There are many more than just myself who watched Tony ply his trade in the big leagues. He was the consummate professional and a feared hitter. He didn’t play on many winning teams but when he came to the plate against your team, you still felt some trepidation. And dare I say maybe you even hated him – if just for a moment – when he got a hit in a critical spot in a tight game.
But you couldn’t hate Tony for long. More than being a great ballplayer, he was a gentleman to everyone he met. I never had that opportunity but I read plenty about him through the years and never read a bad word about him. It was said that he treated the clubhouse boys as well as he treated the owner of the team. And it was never disingenuous. Except for during the heat of battle of a game, he always seemed to be smiling. Not just a little grin, but a big wide grin that made him seem warmer than the summer days of San Diego.
Tony Gwynn was a point guard at San Diego State and is the all-time assists leader for the school. He also played baseball and became an All-American. Gwynn wound up being drafted by the San Diego Clippers of the NBA in the tenth round of the 1981 draft. The same day, he was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the third round of the amateur draft. Thank goodness he decided to play baseball professionally.
Gwynn himself admitted that he wasn’t a real good defender, couldn’t throw and wasn’t a good base runner. He had to work at it. And work at it he did. He was one of the first to utilize video tape as a way of improving himself and used it so much was given the nickname Captain Video.
Captain Video worked so hard off the field to improve himself it showed to the tune of 19 consecutive seasons of batting over .300 and eight National League batting titles. Davey Lopes quipped that a slump for most players would be 0-for-35 but a slump for Tony Gwynn was like 5-for-15. Tony didn’t just work hard on his swing but on all other facets of the game. He had five seasons with over 25 stolen bases, including a career high 56 in 1987. His career ended with a total of 319 swipes and a career batting average of .338 – the second highest in the post World War II era – and five Gold Gloves. All a testament to his hard work.
Mr. Padre (as he is also known) appeared in six postseason series in his career, including two World Series appearances in 1984 and 1998. As the pressure mounted, he got better, batting .250 in the NL Division Series, .289 in the NL Championship Series and .371 in the World Series. Most of the World Series damage was done in the 1998 matchup against my New York Yankees. In that series, Gwynn hit .500 (8-for-16 including one home run) against the likes of David Wells, Orlando Hernandez and Andy Pettitte. There was no other Padre who struck fear in Yankee fans' hearts the way he did, including Greg Vaughn and his 50 regular season home runs.
In 2007, Tony Gwynn was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. During his induction speech, he said “And when you laugh and you can laugh at yourself and laugh at others, that makes the game a whole lot easier to play.” That says a lot about his overall outlook on things. He was a simple and humble man whose favorite moment in the game was to be the last man standing out there with Ted Williams as he threw out the first pitch of the 1999 All-Star Game. This from a man who had many career highlights, including joining the 3,000 hit club in only 2,284 games.
In 2010, Tony Gwynn was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer. It was removed surgically and he underwent radiation treatments but it kept recurring. Gwynn blamed it on his use of chewing tobacco. Tony fought long and hard but lost his battle with cancer on June 16. Baseball has banned smokeless tobacco entirely in the minor leagues since 2001 but the MLBPA has resisted the same at the highest level. Maybe it’s just talk of a cancer survivor but it's high time MLB did the same in the big leagues – in Tony Gwynn’s memory.Tony Gwynn is gone but he will long be remembered. Baseball and the world could not have had a finer gentleman. Thanks to the fact we live in such a technologically advanced age, we don’t have to go far to replay some moments in the life of Captain Video.