In the 1990s, when ballplayers were empowered by steroids and rampaging testosterone, the round-faced teddy bear Tony Gwynn would have nothing to do with any injection or ingestion that might enhance his performance.
He played 20 seasons, was an All-Star in 15 of them, won eight batting championships. When he died, June 16, at only 54, eulogies compared him to Pete Rose and Wade Boggs as the sport’s all-time best “contact hitters.”
While others buffed up, Gwynn puffed out, and he didn’t mind if anyone kidded him about it. He enjoyed telling of the Wrigley Field bleachers greeting him with, “Hey, Snack Bar.” He smiled when they yelled, “Get the cheeseburgers out of your pockets.”
But it’s probably safe to say that nobody since Babe Ruth ran the base paths as swiftly with a body that carried 40 pounds too many. Gwynn stole 319 bases, won five Gold Gloves. He hit .338 lifetime and got his share of slow grounders he could leg out.
If he did little preparation at the training room or table, he avoided bars and night clubs but spent hours at his home theater – viewing and reviewing his plate appearances. And we don’t mean dinner plate. He became known as Captain Video as well as Mr. Padre.
Just about everyone loved him because he was always smiling and affable, cooperative with media, and he treated high school reporters as if they were the New York Times.
About the only person who ever spoke ill of him was a San Diego Padres teammate, Jack Clark, who in clubhouse meeting accused him of being “a selfish mother.”
It was not in Gwynn’s nature to say “no comment.” He took on the selfishness issue by suggesting his accuser, a power-hitting first baseman, preferred to draw a base on balls than knock the runner in from second or third base.
Gwynn was never one to back down. When he said he’d accept a “home-town discount” to stay in San Diego rather than move to a larger market with a much larger contract (as Clark did), he was chastised by the players’ union. Union executive Gene Orza expected him to do everything possible to drive up the salary scale even if it meant uprooting his family from one of America’s most attractive cities. Gwynn said people should stop being so greedy.
He had always done his part to support the union, uttering no complaint when the 1994 baseball strike interrupted his quest to become the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams. Gwynn was batting .394 on Aug, 12 when the season abruptly ended.
Four years ago, when he was diagnosed with cancer of the salivary glands, Gwynn said he had no one to blame but himself. He was a long-time chewer of tobacco. All he could do was try to persuade others not to repeat his mistake.
As he was dying, Gwynn, then head baseball coach at San Diego State, used his video skills to produce an anti-tobacco message to send to young ballplayers.
His message has already had effect. When Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Addison Reed, who formerly played for San Diego State, heard about his coach’s death, he drove to Chase Field and tossed his seven cans of smokeless tobacco into the trash.
“I always told myself I would quit,” said Reed, who’s 25. “Like, next month. And the next thing you know, it’s been six or seven years.”
Gwynn was a rare celebrity who cheerfully accepted the burden of fame and saw it as an opportunity to help others. If he left a legacy besides his cancer video, his many records and a Cooperstown plaque, it’s the record of being more interested in people knowing what he did wrong than what he did right.
If there was extra weight on him, none of it was ego.