I came to be a fan of Tony Gwynn in a roundabout sort of way, although I became as big a fan as many folks who lived in San Diego and got to see him play on a daily basis.
As a kid in the 1970s, my favorite team was the Los Angeles Dodgers and my favorite player on that team was their first baseman, Steve Garvey. When Garvey was traded to the Padres in 1983, my allegiances shifted to San Diego, especially when I learned they had a part-time middle infielder by the name of Tim Flannery—just one letter away from being my name twin.
But in 1984, during the Padres' run to the World Series, I really began to take notice of their young right fielder, Tony Gwynn. During that season, the man who would eventually be known as "Mr. Padre" would win his first of eight batting titles. In the playoffs, he hit .316 and was a key figure in getting San Diego to the World Series for the first time in franchise history.
After that, I was pretty much sold on the talented man who would become the centerpiece of the franchise for the next 17 years.
I became very familiar with Gwynn's strengths and his stats. I knew, for instance, that although he had the label of defensive liability when he made it to the majors in 1982, he worked hard at that part of his game and wound up winning five Gold Gloves before he won five batting championships.
When Gwynn hit .370 in 1987, I knew that it was the highest batting average in the NL since the days of Stan Musial (Musial hit .376 in 1948) and that he never had a cold streak that year longer than eight at-bats.
I basically became a Tony Gwynn encyclopedia from my Canadian home far, far away from San Diego and, no doubt, bored my friends to tears with my constantly dredging up obscure Tony Gwynn factoids.
As Gwynn moved into the second decade of his career and I moved on from exuberant teen baseball fan to exuberant young baseball coach, I began to pay closer and closer attention to the technical side of No. 19's game.
In 1992 I bought Tony Gwynn's Total Baseball Player, his first instructional book, and I began incorporating many of his lessons into what I was teaching to the kids I was coaching. In 2000, I snapped up a copy of The Art of Hitting, his book that incorporates autobiography with more hitting lessons, and added more of his wisdom into what I was teaching to the kids in my care.
Over the years, I became more and more impressed with Gwynn's work ethic and dedication to excellence, and I've tried to impart that to the ballplayers I coach. Even these days, when most of them are too young to have ever seen Mr. Padre swing a bat, their baseball experience is being influenced by what I've learned from him.
Last year, my wife and I made a road trip down to San Diego and back and, although we didn't get a chance to see a game at Petco Park, we did spend some time walking around the park, giving me a chance to get my picture taken next to the Gwynn statue just beyond the right field wall. I also came home with a Gwynn tee-shirt from the Padres store in Petco.
Tony Gwynn was an inspiration to me throughout his career and for many years after. Knowing how much he affected me and my perception of the game of baseball—even from over 1,500 miles away—I can only imagine how much of an impact he had on others who got to see him play in person or got to meet him.
His loss will be deeply felt, but his memory will live on.
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