For a man who is just as legendary for his beaming smile and his hearty belly laugh as he is for his play, the toughest opponent was not to be found on the baseball field.
For a man like Tony Gwynn, who was an eight-time National League batting champion—second only to Ty Cobb—the most vicious opponent was not Randy Johnson or Andy Pettitte, but cancer.
"Right away your heart just jumps into your throat," he said about hearing the cancer diagnosis. "You hear the word cancer, and you think, oh my god, I'm going to die."
The diagnosis was cancer of a salivary gland.
Gwynn had to have both of his lymph nodes removed. The months to follow would be an intense regimen of chemotherapy treatments that would eventually cause the former baseball great to have to use a walker to get around.
Following the radiation treatments, surgery would then catch the cancer early and remove the lymph nodes that caused the illness.
However, the surgery caused other complications.
Unfortunately, Gwynn lost the ability to make expressions, laugh and even blink with his right eye.
"It was tough," he said. "I couldn't even smile all the way across."
Although the doctors do not attribute his cancer to his long-time habit of using smokeless tobacco, Gwynn feels otherwise.
"For 20 years I was a workaholic in baseball," he said, "and during that time, every time I would go to work I would dip. I would go to batting practice, and I would have a dip-in. I would get done with a game, have a dip-in. In the locker room, have a dip-in."
Gwynn is now completely cancer-free, and he was able to return to his current job of coaching baseball at San Diego State.
He recalls getting emotional upon his return.
"I just broke down," he said after speaking to his college players.
I believe the one message that Tony Gwynn would want to send to youngsters today would be that there is nothing cool about going to the ball park and seeing players dipping and spitting chewing tobacco.
Hopefully he can use his cancer ordeal as a starting point for being a role model for young baseball players everywhere.