Padres remember San Diego's brightest star

SEATTLE -- When third baseman Chase Headley took the field for the San Diego Padres for their game against the Seattle Mariners on Monday night he knew he would be thinking of Tony Gwynn.

“I think it would be hard not to, after losing someone who was that caliber of a person and player,” Headley said. “It’s just a reminder of what came before you and what he’s meant to the game. And frankly, to a small extent, to the reason we’re here.”

Gwynn passed away at age 54 on Monday morning, a death that cast a pall over all of baseball but especially the Padres organization, with whom he played his entire Hall of Fame career. In addition to batting .338 over 20 seasons with the Padres, Gwynn led them to their only two World Series.

“He’s Mr. Padre,” Headley said. “He is as beloved by San Diego as any sports figure whoever came through the city -- and he felt the same way. He loved San Diego. He means as much or more to this organization as anybody.”

Padres manager Bud Black called Gwynn an icon, the ballplayer and athlete most associated with the city where Ted Williams grew up. “There’s no doubt about that.”

“When you think of Tony Gwynn, you think of the Padres. And when you think of the Padres, you think of Tony Gwynn,” agreed San Diego batting coach Phil Plantier, who played several seasons with Gwynn. “I was fortunate enough to watch him play for a couple years. I got to hit behind him a couple times. He was just the ultimate professional on and off the field. He did everything the way you hoped everybody would.”

Plantier recalls how Gwynn installed the Padres first videotape system for studying opposing pitchers. “I’m pretty sure he paid for the first system out of his own pocket,” he said. “Tony put it together and he made it available for everybody to use. That was part of his preparation, using the video. A lot of us, we didn’t know what we should be looking for but he would talk about it with us.”

Before Monday’s game, the Mariners showed a highlight video of Gwynn’s career on the scoreboard followed by a moment of silence. They also marked a large No. 19 on the infield dirt, right at Gwynn's famous 5.5 hole.

“I thought the Mariners were thinking what we were thinking,” Black said. “They really did a nice job.”

The Padres, however, lost the game 5-1, with former San Diego pitcher Chris Young holding them scoreless over six innings. Young paid tribute to Gwynn afterward.

“He is the city of San Diego,” Young said. “You talk Padres baseball and Tony Gwynn is everything there. The fact that he spent his entire career there and never left. The records he put up there, what he means to that city, that franchise, and as a resident of San Diego now, I certainly understand and appreciate his greatness. It’s a sad, sad day for everyone there.”

The Padres are still working on plans for the tribute to their greatest and most beloved player when they return from their current road trip.

“There are no words to express what Tony means to this organization and this community,” the Padres organization said in a news release. “More than just Mr. Padre, Tony was Mr. San Diego. He cared deeply about our city and had a profound impact on our community. He forever will be remembered not only for his tremendous on-field accomplishments, but also for his infectious laugh, warm, outgoing personality and huge heart.”

While he was known as Mr. Padre, Gwynn’s career in San Diego wasn’t just about that team. He played baseball and basketball at San Diego State and managed the baseball team there after his playing career ended.

Black and Gwynn played together at San Diego State, when Bud was a senior and Tony was a sophomore (the basketball coach did not allow Gwynn to play baseball his freshman year). Black says he never beat Gwynn to the ballfield -- “He was always there, he loved the baseball field” -- and fondly recalls hearing his distinctive, contagious laugh on the team bus rides, and even from six doors away in the team motels.

He said that despite his success and the many accolades he received during his career, Gwynn never changed from the humble player and kind, always welcoming man he met at Sand Diego State.

“This is a tough one for us,” Black said. “It’s a tough one for the San Diego community. This is a tough one for the Padres organization, a tough one for the San Diego State family -- and for baseball in general.

“He truly loved baseball as much as anyone I’ve ever known.”