Every generation has a handful of players that help to define greatness in the sport. That's part of why so many people over the last 10 years have been so upset about the "Steroid Era". Those pesky chemical enhancements allow players to do now, what even the greatest could never dream of doing 75 years ago. But even in a day and age of chemically enhanced stats and egos, there were and are, still players that did things the "right way", players that elevated the game with talent and professionalism that anyone could appreciate. Tony Gwynn was one such player.
Most people will remember Mr. Padre as a prolific hitter, the man who abused with regularity what he termed "the five-point-five hole", the area between third base and short stop where he regularly deposited balls for drop-in hits. In his 20-year career the San Diego right fielder compiled 3,141 hits. He had a lifetime batting average of .338, the highest in the game since another exceptional human being, named Ted Williams, ended his career with a .344 average. Gwynn won eight National League batting titles, tying him for the most all-time with Honus Wagner. In his career, Gwynn made 15 all-star appearances, won five Gold Gloves, and seven Silver Slugger awards. Gwynn's career is littered with epic achievements at the plate. Gwynn, the most prolific hitter of his age, had 107 plate appearances against Hall of Fame pitcher Gregg Maddux (more than any other pitcher), arguably the greatest pitcher of the era. In all of those appearances, Gwynn managed a mind-boggling .415 batting average and a .476 OBP. Those are some crazy-stupid numbers. Yet those numbers do nothing to compare with one other number on Gwynn's stat line - zero. That zero represents the total number of times Gregg Maddux was able to strike out Tony Gwynn. That's right, 0, zero, nadda, zip, zilch. The pink slip for the ownership of Greg Maddux will be buried with Tony Gwynn in the near future.
For as amazing as Tony Gwynn was on the field though, he was equally amazing off the field. It's tough to find anyone who has spent time in Gwynn's orbit that doesn't have at least one good tale to tell. This is a guy who was committed to both his family and his community and played the game clean during an era in which dancing around in the black and grey ethical areas was a commonplace. He attended San Diego State University. As an Aztec, he was a two-sport star, excelling in both basketball and baseball. When his playing career came to an end and San Diego State found themselves in need of a new head coach, Tony Gwyn put on a suit and tie and had a professional resume put together in order to sell himself and asked if he could interview for the job. That's the kind of ego Tony Gwynn had - a non-existent one.
I had the pleasure of meeting Gwynn on a number of occasions. The man was never without a smile on his face, a jovial fellow whose jocularity was infectious. The man was never too proud to take a few moments out of his day to acknowledge those around him that recognized him. He was laid-back. He treated everyone with respect and dignity and took the time to provide kind words to those around who were not as fortunate as he was. That's the Tony Gwynn I'll miss. Today, the game of baseball lost a truly great person and all-around gentleman.