Monday, June 16, 2014

Tony Gwynn, 1960-2014

Cancer is a bastard. Cancer doesn't care if you're white or black, rich or poor, young or old, straight or gay, or what god you pray to in order to rid yourself of your suffering. It certainly doesn't care if you've got 3,000 hits and 8 batting titles.

We've made great strides in the treatment of cancer over the last half-century. But not in time to save Tony Gwynn.

Anthony Keith Gwynn was born on May 9, 1960 in Los Angeles, and grew up in neighboring Long Beach, where he attended Polytechnic High School, starring in baseball, football and basketball.

Other grads of Poly, which was used in the films The Craft, American Beauty and American Pie, include: Tony's brother and former San Diego Padre teammate Chris Gwynn, Giants pitcher Randy Moffitt, Moffitt's sister and tennis icon Billie Jean King, former Los Angeles Dodger All-Star Milton Bradley, Philadelphia Phillies All-Star Chase Utley; football players Gene Washington, Tony Hill, Mark Carrier, Tony Hill, Willie McGinest and DeSean Jackson; football player turned actor Carl Weathers; basketball star Tyus Edney; actress and Leo Durocher ex-wife Laraine Day; actors Van Heflin and Cameron Diaz; singers Marilyn Horne and Jo Stafford; quirky bandleader Spike Jones; jazz drumming legend Buddy Rich; metal guitarist Lita Ford; and rappers Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg (who were first cousins).

Tony Gwynn starred in baseball and basketball at San Diego State University, where their baseball field has been renamed Tony Gwynn Stadium. He was actually better in basketball at SDSU, setting school records for assists in a game, a season and a career. He was drafted by both the San Diego Padres and the NBA's San Diego Clippers -- who moved to Los Angeles in 1984.

Thinking baseball would be less physical, he signed with the Padres, and made his major league debut on July 19, 1982, at Jack Murphy Stadium (now Qualcomm Stadium). Batting 5th and playing center field, he went 2-for-4, with an RBI on a sacrifice fly in his first plate appearance, helping to knock Mike Krukow out of the box in the 2nd inning. But John Curtis couldn't hold the lead, and the Phillies ended up winning, 7-6.

For most of his career, Gwynn played right field, a position previously held in San Diego by Dave Winfield -- who thus ended up maybe the 2nd-best player in team history, but also its 2nd-best right fielder. Gwynn won 5 Gold Gloves. (Like Gwynn, Winfield had also been a baseball and basketball star in college, at the University of Minnesota, and was drafted in both sports.)

But it's his hitting that people will remember. He won 8 National League batting titles, a feat previously achieved only by Honus Wagner, and in the American League only by Ty Cobb (who won 12). A 15-time All-Star, his career batting average was .338, the highest of any player who debuted after 1939. He collected 3,141 hits, including 543 doubles, 85 triples and 135 home runs. Only once did he top 90 RBIs, getting 119 in 1997, which was also his peak year for home runs, with 17. (The Murph/The Q was a pitcher's park.) As a singles hitter, he was the successor to Rod Carew, but with a little more power. In spite of not being a slugger, his career OPS+ was 132. He never struck out more than 40 times in a season.

In 1984, he batted .351. He was just getting warmed up. In 1987, he batted .370. In 1994, he was batting .394 and generating what remains baseball's last serious discussion of whether a player can bat .400 for the first time since Ted Williams in 1941, when the strike hit. Not to rest on his laurels, over the next 3 seasons, he batted .368, .353 and .372. In any ballpark, those numbers are outstanding; in a pitcher's park like The Murph/The Q, they're mind-boggling.

"People can say what they want to say about me," he said in 1991. "I know I've never driven in a lot of runs. That stat never has been that important to me. But who in this league is better at putting the bat on the ball? Nobody." And when he said it, nobody accused him of being arrogant. Because it was generally agreed that he was right, and that he had a good perspective on his own talent: He may have been one-dimensional as far as offense went (although that's not completely fair: Despite his weight, he is the Padres' all-time stolen base leader with 319), but, at the time, nobody else was better at that one dimension, with the possible exception of Wade Boggs -- and Gwynn did say "in this league"; Boggs was in the American League.

Like Williams, Gwynn was known for his keen eyesight. He used that sight to constantly study videotape, of his swing, and of pitchers' tendencies. This earned him the nickname Captain Video, after a science-fiction TV show of the 1950s.

He was a one-club man, playing only for the Padres over 20 seasons, wearing only Number 19, which was retired. The Padres never reached the postseason without him until 2005. With him, they won their first Pennant in 1984, their 2nd in 1998, and won another NL Western Division title in 1996. They've never gone all the way, but don't blame Gwynn: He batted .306 in postseason play, including a home run into the short porch at the old Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the 1998 World Series.

Before that game, he was filmed walking through Monument Park, and paying his respects to the Yankee Legends -- due to Interleague play being a brand-new thing, and never having played in the AL, he had never faced the Yankees before. Between that, and living his entire life in Southern California, it was the first time he had ever set foot in Yankee Stadium. As accomplished as he was, he was in awe.

Plagued by a knee injury that required 8 surgeries during his career, he announced his retirement during the 2001 season, as did Cal Ripken, but he didn't get nearly the hype that Cal got. This is probably because Cal had the aura of his streak, and of playing in the MLB city closest to the nation's capital at the time (Washington not getting a team again until 2005), and thus having the D.C. intelligentsia going up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (or MARC or Amtrak) and fawning over him; while Gwynn played in comparatively isolated San Diego, as Hollywood types could stay in L.A. and watch the Dodgers, instead of making the 2-hour trip to Mission Valley to watch the Padres at Qualcomm.

Oh, that last season? He only made 112 plate appearances, but at the age of 41, he still batted .324. Indeed, aside from his rookie season (an otherwise-fine .289), he never batted under .300, a feat he shares with Cobb.

Dick Williams, his first manager and himself a Hall-of-Famer, said, "I don't think I've ever had a player who worked harder, cared more and was more deserving of his awards."

Those awards included election to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 2007, nomination to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1999, being ranked Number 49 on The Sporting News' 100 Greatest Baseball Players the same year, election to the San Diego Hall of Champions, having his Number 19 retired by the Padres, having a statue erected in his honor outside the Padres' new home, Petco Park, and having that stadium nicknamed "The House That Gwynn Built," even though he never played in it -- because the 1998 Pennant run he led helped pass the ballot initiative that paid for it. The base of the statue includes the words "Mr. Padre."

When his playing career ended, it coincided with the retirement of his college coach, Jim Dietz. He wanted the job, and got it. He took the Aztecs to the NCAA Regionals once, and, after a reduction in scholarships because the program did not meet academic standards, improved in that regard for 5 years straight through 2012.

But he had to take a leave of absence after that season, because he was diagnosed with oral cancer, having a salivary gland removed. He blamed it -- almost certainly correctly -- on his own use of chewing tobacco. Which may have also caused the death of Yankee star and broadcaster Bobby Murcer.

It was a bit ironic: I was concerned about his weight, which had ballooned to 330 pounds, making me think of the weight-driven health issues that killed Minnesota Twins Hall-of-Famer Kirby Puckett when he was only 45 -- yet it was cancer that plagued Gwynn, causing him to lose 80 pounds. In spite of his illness, he attended every Hall of Fame induction ceremony since his own.

"The whole experience was traumatic because I thought I had it beat," Gwynn said during an Induction Weekend visit. "And, dang, it came back." Cancer has a habit of doing that. Like I said, it's a bastard -- something Tony Gwynn never was.

At least, not that we ever saw. On and off the field, he generated respect. Even on those occasions when he was criticized -- a few teammates criticized him for his weight gain -- he didn't strike back. He was a class act.

His death was announced earlier today. He was 54. He leaves his wife, Alicia, who runs a record label, Base Hit Records.

Their daughter is a singer for that label, who professionally uses the names "Anisha Nicole" and "Nee-Nee Gwynn." Her first album is titled 19, after her father's uniform number. Anisha is married to a ballplayer, Kennard Jones, who's gotten to Triple-A ball, but not yet to the majors.

Their son, Tony Gwynn Jr., is also a major league outfielder, currently with the Phillies, where one of his teammates is another son of a pretty good hitter, John Mayberry Jr. Tony Jr. was born near the end of his father's first big-league season, 1982, and like his father his first big-league hit was a double. He is married with 3 daughters.

No comments: