As the news ticker scrolled along the bottom of the living room television screen, the name “Gwynn” caught my eye. The date was June 16th, 2014, and Tony Gwynn had just passed after a prolonged fight with salivary gland cancer. My immediate reaction was a rather lengthy string of profanities uttered with cancer the obvious target of my invectives. I wasn’t so much mourning for myself as I was feeling a strong sense of empathy for baseball fans in the foreign land of San Diego. While baseball as a whole lost something that day, Padres fans lost Mr. Padre, and they were cheated out of what could have been 20, or 25, or maybe even 30 more years of embracing their sports icon. Both Gwynn and the fans were robbed.
They had lost their Stan Musial.
Not every baseball franchise has a Musial or a Gwynn, and even though every team has a “Mount Rushmore” of baseball icons, not all are created equal. You could argue that Dave Winfield was better or that Trevor Hoffman was greater among his peers. Both were great as Padres, but they both ultimately were shared by other cities. Gwynn belonged wholly and enviously to San Diego alone.
Gwynn was a San Diego State University guy. Then he was the Padres guy for 20+ years before becoming a San Diego State guy again as the head baseball coach there. Gwynn didn’t simply represent San Diego as the face of a franchise or even the entire city; he practically exuded San Diego from his pores. To a kid growing up in the Midwest, Gwynn was San Diego, and he had a nice zoo.
He remains synonymous with San Diego as much for his attachment to the city as his sustained excellence on the field during the entirety of his Hall of Fame career there. Unlike some inexplicably popular players, he wasn’t some marginal bench guy afforded the luxury of some emotional capital based solely on his ability to show up with his uniform already dirty. He wasn’t merely a cult hero of sorts, blessed with a knack for the big moments while still hitting just .190.
No. He was arguably the best hitter of his generation, and his career statistics come straight from MLB The Show (or maybe 8-bit Nintendo Baseball because 80’s). He was a career .338 hitter back when caring about batting average didn’t invite ridicule and shaming. He hit below .300 during his one terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season. That is to say he hit .289 (.726 OPS) during his rookie season at age 22. But you already knew this.
He hit .300 in every stadium in which he played 50 or more games. He hit .300+ during night games. And day games. And in open stadiums and domes. And on grass. And on artificial turf. If MLB scheduled 10 games on the moon, Gwynn would have hit .300 there too. Tony Gwynn could square up a knuckleball using the wet end of a toothpick. You probably already knew most of this minus the part about the toothpick.
Did you also know that he hit .347/.391/.520/.910 as a minor leaguer? Seriously. The guy probably hit .350 playing Wiffle ball at age 3.
You could spend years authoring a thesis on baseball analytics just using Gwynn’s numbers. If you look at any widely accepted, somewhat meaningful statistical split, Gwynn hit .300+ with an emphasis on the “+”. Were it just about numbers, his would be a fine story. Gwynn left much more than his body of work as characterized by significant digits. He left an impression. As a fan of the not-Padres, I found it difficult, nay impossible to root against him. That’s not to say that I rooted for him, but it somehow made his successes against my favorite team more palatable.
I didn’t just grudgingly respect him for his skill as applied to swinging a wooden implement at a stitched leather object hurled with great velocity. I appreciated that which could not be quantified and packaged into an acronym used to represent some vaguely unimportant metric. Gwynn’s at-bats gave me the sense that he would get a hit every single time. It was as though he cloaked himself in an aura of infallibility, and in doing so he created the expectation that he could/would succeed every time. It was akin to James Worthy hitting a jumper late in the game or maybe a John Elway comeback. Odds were against it happening, but the feeling that it would happen anyway provided a certain acceptable disconnect between what you wanted to see and what you were likely to see.
If Gwynn could make such an indelible mark on me from such a great distance, then fandom for those nearer to the Gwynn epicenter must be extremely intense. This thought made me genuinely happy for the Padres faithful, even if I fully expected to hear about his accomplishments for perpetuity. That was okay too, because every fan needs something to crow about just a little bit. To do so about Gwynn meant not having to share, and sharing is totally overrated.
So when he passed a year ago today, my first thought was of how cruel cancer is to everyone it affects. My second thought was of how you were robbed, Padres fans. You lost your living legend, a reminder that athletes come in all shapes and sizes, and a shining example that not all successful professional athletes are Philip Rivers. You were cheated, but not in a “Matt Holliday still hasn’t touched home plate” way. This is far worse, and I get that.