Tony Gwynn was more than the incredible numbers he produced on the baseball diamond from 1982 until 2001.
Blessed with extraordinary hand-eye coordination, Gwynn finished with 3,141 hits, 543 doubles, 85 triples, 135 homers, 1,138 runs batted in, and 1,383 runs scored.
Gwynn, who passed away this past week at the age of 54, was not only one of the greatest hitters of this generation, but one of the best all-time.
With the news of Gwynn’s passing, it seemed every story about the man called “Mr. Padre,’’ had the same theme: despite being a superstar, he was gracious, dignified and approachable.
From longtime Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated baseball writer/columnist Peter Gammons to New York Times and ESPN The Magazine’s Buster Olney, to Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke, every one had something nice to say about Gwynn.
Early in his career at the Times, Plaschke was a baseball beat writer assigned to cover the San Diego Padres.
At the beginning of his stay, many Padres’ players gave Plaschke a hard time, but Gwynn, a career .338 hitter and winner of eight National League batting titles, would have none of it. Always willing to speak with the media, Gwynn, a right fielder, was a rock that comforted the young reporter.
In time, Gwynn, a 15-time All-Star who helped guide San Diego to the playoffs three times, including the 1984 and 1998 World Series, made Plaschke’s job much easier. Others said the same thing about Gwynn, a third round pick by the Padres in 1981, who batted .300 or better 19 times and had a best of .394 in 110 games in the strike-shortened 1994 season.
In MLB.com Barry M. Bloom’s story on the memorial service held at San Diego State where Gwynn played baseball, basketball and later was the head baseball coach, former teammate Trevor Hoffman spoke.
“Toward the end [of his career]the tributes always ended with Tony saying thank you to all of us for letting him do all this stuff,’’ said Hoffman, the team’s closer and all-time saves leader with 552. “It’s my opportunity now for me to say thank you to you Tony.”
Late in Gwynn’s Hall of Fame run, I found myself in the Padres’ clubhouse after a game.
Chan Ho Park was on the mound for the Dodgers, and afterward several Korean reporters circled Gwynn, the sweet-swinging left-hander.
“Hello, Mr. Gwynn,’’ one began. “I would like to know what pitch do you find difficult to hit off Park?’’ Gwynn looked at the reporter and said, “Do you really want me to answer that question? If I answer that question it’s going to be in the newspapers. Other pitchers are going to see it, and they’re going to want to throw that same pitch. I won’t answer that question, but if you ask a different question, I’ll answer it.”
And so Gwynn, who played his entire career with the Padres and had a .459 slugging percentage and a .388 on-base percentage, answered every query. And while another player would have balked after the initial bad start, Gwynn rose to the occasion, just like he did on the baseball field.
What this demonstrated was that Gwynn understood there is a way to handle oneself with class and dignity, which he had in abundance. I know because I’ve seen others bristle and simply walk away.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.