Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Meet a Prospect: Tony Gwynn

In honor of tonight’s 2016 MLB All-Star Game which is being hosted by the San Diego Padres inside their beautiful Petco Park I wanted to honor one of the fallen legends from not only the Padres but from Major League Baseball as well. I’m not great with words, toasts and all that jazz to be completely honest and this is the only way that I know how, or the best way anyway. This is Meet a Prospect: The Tony Gwynn Edition.

Anthony Keith “Tony” Gwynn Sr. was born on May 9, 1960 and passed away on June 16, 2014. In his untimely death “Mr. Padre” was battling cancer and had undergone radiation treatments that deemed him cancer free. It was the day before Father’s Day 2014 when Gwynn went into cardiac arrest and died from complications with the cancer far too soon. Gwynn’s family linked his cancer to his chewing tobacco as a young man and MLB player so Gwynn leaves a legacy and a message not only with his playing career but with his life as well. Gwynn played 20 seasons of MLB all for the San Diego Padres and in that time won eight batting titles with his career .338 batting average and never hit below .309 in any full season. Gwynn was a 15-time All-Star, a seven time Silver Slugger Award winner and a five time Gold Glove Award winner. Gwynn led the Padres to the franchise’s only two trips to the World Series and was inducted to the MLB Hall of Fame in his first year on eligibility in 2007. Gwynn was a truly remarkable baseball player and a truly remarkable man. Let’s meet him again.

Gwynn was born in Los Angeles, California to mother Vendella and father Charles Gwynn where he and his brother Charles Jr. found their love of sports, particularly basketball and baseball. Gwynn attended Long Beach Polytechnic High School and played for the school’s basketball and baseball teams there and while at the school Gwynn actually considered quitting baseball at one point. See his high school basketball team had a 53-6 record in his final two years of high school while his baseball team went a staggering 3-25-2. Gwynn received scholarships to play college basketball but none for college baseball despite hitting .563 in his senior year and went undrafted in the 1977 MLB Draft. Gwynn decided to go to San Diego State University to continue his career in both sports.

While at SDSU Gwynn played three seasons of baseball and four seasons of basketball earning two-time All-American honors as an outfielder in his final two years of baseball. Gwynn was not allowed to play baseball as a freshman due to being overweight according to his coaches. Gwynn impressed playing left field with SDSU and caught the eye of the San Diego Padres who came calling in the third round of the 1981 MLB Draft. Gwynn was selected 58th overall only before being drafted by the San Diego Clippers in the 10th round of the NBA Draft as well. It did not take Gwynn long to fly through the Padres system and wear the “ugliest uniforms he had seen in his life” (a quote he used before the draft and before becoming a member of the Padres) as he made his MLB debut in 1982.

Gwynn was first invited to Padres spring training camp in 1982 where he impressed with a .375 average but the outfield was set in San Diego that season pushing Gwynn to Triple- A to begin the season. Gwynn spent 93 games in Triple-A hitting .328 before earning his call up in place of a slumping Ruppert Jones. Gwynn finished his rookie campaign with a .289 average in 54 games due in large part to a wrist injury that cost him three weeks of his season. This would be the only season he would ever hit under .300 in a single season. Gwynn would become an All-Star for the first time in his first full season in 1984 and the San Diego Padres went on to also win their first NL West Division title. That season Gwynn also set the Padres single-season record for hits with 213 and finished third in the NL MVP Award voting behind Ryne Sandberg and Keith Hernandez. To finish off Gwynn’s breakout season he led the Padres to their first ever trip to the World Series, and eventual loss to the Detroit Tigers.

From 1985 throughout the rest of his career Gwynn was a staple in the Padres outfield, at or near the top of their lineup and at or near the top of the National League’s batting average list. Gwynn did not let the off-the-field drama affect his play which was a worry of some in 1987 when Gwynn filed for bankruptcy during the season. Gwynn remained steady and remained true to his form, being a contact hitter and not a power hitter, through the 1990’s. It was 1990 when Jack Clark accused Gwynn of being a selfish player worried more about his batting average than his team and winning. Clark mentioned that Gwynn should be swinging with runners in scoring position instead of bunting because Clark saw it as a way of manipulating his batting average if he failed while Gwynn though moving the runners over would help his team win. Whoever was right remains to be seen but Gwynn took the criticism personally forcing him to become distrustful and withdrawn from his teammates. Rumors began circulating that he may be traded after adjusting his style and swing with runners in scoring position and the cherry on top of the sundae was found in September of 1990. Gwynn found a figure of his likeness hanging in the Padres’ dugout and while San Diego said a groundskeeper was to blame Tony always knew in his heart it was Clark trying to send him a message.

Clark left for the Boston Red Sox before the 1991 season and the Padres tried to show their star some appreciation by signing him to a three-year contract extension with 412.25 million which included a $1 million signing bonus. The injuries continued to pile up for Gwynn as he ended the 1992 campaign on the disabled list, the third straight year he had done so, but that did not stop Gwynn from meeting Ted Williams on the field during the 1992 All-Star Game. Dealing with injury after injury was hard for Gwynn but the 1993 season may have been his toughest time in the major Leagues during his career. The Padres lost 101 games and finished just behind the Colorado Rockies in the division who were in their first year as an expansion team. Gwynn also watched many of his teammates including Gary Sheffield and Fred McGriff traded away but Gwynn remained the staple in San Diego. That season Gwynn did collect his 2,000th hit, almost had a 7-for-7 game and lost his father at just 57-years old due to heart problems. The roller coaster career continues.

Gwynn contemplated leaving the game in 1994 and leaving San Diego as well but he stuck it out and had possibly the best season of his career with his father behind him spiritually rooting him on. Gwynn chased down the .400 mark falling just short that season hitting .394 before losing the rest of the season and the World Series to the strike. Gwynn finished the season due to the strike just three consecutive hits away from hitting .400. Gwynn won his seventh batting title in 1997 but ended up spending a bulk of the season on the disabled list once again while the Padres lost in the postseason to St. Louis. Gwynn was back with vengeance in 1998 though leading the Padres to 98 victories and a trip to their second World Series against the New York Yankees. New York swept the Padres in four games in that series but that was not because of Gwynn’s lack of hitting. Gwynn finished that World Series hitting .500 while the rest of the team batted just .203 against Yankees pitching and even hit a home run against David Wells in the Bronx. This was as close as Gwynn ever got to a World Series victory and ring.

In 1999 Gwynn got to scratch two items off his bucket list, one was escorting Ted Williams around Fenway Park during the All-Star Game and the other was notching his 3,000th hit. Gwynn turned 40-years old in 2000 and had another season ending surgery which led to a bitter contract negotiation that left Gwynn a free agent for the first time in his career. The Padres wanted to buy out his deal to save the team $4 million but ultimately the team gave Gwynn $2 million of that back after signing him to a one-year deal with incentives that could have pushed the deal to $5.7 million. Injuries continued to pile up for Gwynn until the future Hall of Fame hitter announced his retirement at the end of the season on June 28, 2001.

Tony Gwynn was elected to the MLB Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York in his first year of eligibility in 2007 and passed away in 2014. Gwynn was the epitome of class, hard work and what it meant to play Major League Baseball. He is missed to this day around the league and will always be missed by anyone who was a fan of MLB during that era, especially myself. Rest in peace Tony and just know even today and even as a Yankees fan we’re still thinking of you and what you meant to the game. Fly high!

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