SAN DIEGO -- In late April, I surprised him at the hospital. He was in a wheelchair. His hair was fully gray. He couldn't open his right eye. He could only halfway open his mouth. He was on oxygen. The purest hitter of our generation was dying.
You can't prepare yourself for that. Not when you knew him like I did. I was a rookie Padres beat writer in 1985; he'd won his first batting title in 1984. I knew him when his vision was 20-10, when he considered 1-for-4 a bad day at the office, when he used to write "5.5 hole" on his cleats. That day in the hospital, I would have done anything to see a young Tony Gwynn again. And then I looked down at his feet. He was wearing his old baseball shower shoes. On them was his scribbled number: 19. He was 19 to the end.
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He thought I came to write about him that day. But I was really there to cheer up the man who spent 20 seasons cheering up a city. To live in San Diego is to live and breathe Tony Gwynn. My 12-year-old son, born a year after Gwynn retired, wore No. 19 in Encinitas Little League. He and a thousand other kids in town. Petco Park's address is 19 Tony Gwynn Way. His statue sits right behind where he played: right field. If the name Cal Ripken says Baltimore, then the name Tony Gwynn says San Diego.
He played basketball and baseball at San Diego State. He was drafted by the Padres and the San Diego Clippers on the same day. He played here 20 seasons. He could have left via free agency any number of times -- because the Padres are in a small market and let player after player walk -- but Gwynn always took "the hometown discount.''
Other Gwynns kept following him to the club. His brother, Chris, had an RBI for the Padres on the last day of the '96 season to beat the Dodgers and clinch the division. Tony's son, Anthony, would later roam the outfield for the Padres, too. Tony's daughter, Anisha, sang the national anthem here.
This may be a beach town, but Tony made it blue collar. He was the first big league hitter to videotape and watch every one of his at-bats. I would get to the ballpark at 2:30 p.m. for a 7 o'clock night game, and there was Tony, all alone, taking early batting practice. He thought he was a terrible hitter; that's what made him a Hall of Famer. That's why he was able to win eight batting titles and have a career average of .338, the highest since his friend and fellow San Diegan Ted Williams. Tony always told me he was motivated by fear -- fear of going 0-for-5. At 2:30, every day, he'd hit upward of 100 balls to the 5.5 hole -- between shortstop and third -- and then lope back to the clubhouse ...
For another pinch of chewing tobacco.
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I guess, if you want to get technical, baseball killed him. Because he first began to chew at rookie ball in Walla Walla, Washington. He was so paranoid that his swing would fall to pieces overnight that he would dip smokeless tobacco to take the edge off.
He told me he had the same morning habit for years -- brush your teeth, then fire in a dip -- and that he would go through a can and a half of Skoal a day. I remember the cup he used to keep by his locker to spit into. One day at home, his young son, Anthony, thought that cup was full of juice and took a sip. "It was gross,'' Anthony told me once. From that moment on, Anthony vowed he'd never chew.
But it was too late for Tony. "I was addicted," he once told me. He would sneak out of his house late at night -- "like a criminal,'' he said -- to buy his tobacco at a convenience store. If his wife, Alicia, had known, she would've socked him. She wanted him to quit, begged him to quit, threatened to leave him if he didn't quit. He tried bubble gum, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and synthetic chew, but baseball wasn't baseball without the real stuff.
"I'm a tobacco junkie,'' he told me.
Until it gave him cancer of the salivary gland in 2010.
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Cancer -- talk about a fastball to the head. He worked to beat it the same way he worked to go to the 5.5 hole. At the time of his diagnosis, he was the head baseball coach at San Diego State and promised them he'd be back after facial surgery, chemo and radiation. But when he returned, his face partially paralyzed, it was hard to look at him, hard to face this fact: Tony Gwynn didn't have the strength to smile. What had made him special -- and this may be part of his legacy -- is that he was the most congenial superstar I ever came across in my 30-year career. His laugh -- part hyena, part grammar school -- would enter the room a minute before he did. You could hear his giggle a half-mile away. Cancer took that away.
He beat it temporarily, but then the growths came back ... and came back again. His father, Charles, had died young of heart problems. Death crossed Tony's mind a lot. When I visited with him at the hospital, he thought I had come to write his obit. About a week earlier, there'd been a mishap during one of his cancer treatments. From what I'm told, he'd lost oxygen and was suddenly barely able to move. It was almost like a stroke, and he was sent to a rehab hospital to learn how to walk again. He knew his body was failing. He knew something perilous had happened to him, and he wasn't going to lie: He was scared.
I wanted to change the subject, so I brought up baseball. For the first time all day, he lit up. His greatest moment was his home run at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the '98 World Series, off of David Wells. His most disappointing was the '94 baseball strike. His batting average was .394 on Aug. 11, 1994, the day the players went on strike. If he'd had four more hits -- either four dying quails or four lucky nubbers -- he would have finished at .400, the first hitter to do so since Williams. Without the strike, I believe Gwynn would have done it, and he did too. He could've handled the media scrutiny. He would've taken his early BP at 2:30 and been all smiles at 6:30.
So his baseball life hadn't been perfect. Over the years, teammates were jealous of his popularity (see Jack Clark), and even upper management seemed threatened by him. Maybe he'd gotten too big in town for them. How he was never hired as the Padres' hitting coach is beyond me. They could've talked him out of coaching at San Diego State. They could've done more than just hire him as a broadcaster. John Moores, the owner when Tony retired, promised him a lifetime contract in 2001. But over the years, the two drifted apart.
It has ended badly and sadly. But I choose to remember the young Tony Gwynn, who despite his cherubic appearance, once stole 56 bases in a season. I remember him working on his defense in the offseason -- the same way Michael Jordan worked on his jumper -- and then earning five Gold Gloves. I remember doing a story on him and Don Mattingly in 1986, about a contest in which they were both supposed to hit a button when lights flashed -- to see who had the quickest reactions and the keenest eyesight. They were both in their prime at the time, and Mr. Padre whipped Mr. Yankee.
But I also will never forget that day at the hospital this April. Tony was trying to get his hands and arms to work again, and a therapist sat him in front of a series of lights -- just as he and Mattingly had done in '86. It had been 28 years. There had been three cancer surgeries, there had been weight gain. Tony was slow. He was frustrated. It wasn't fair. He used to have 20-10 vision; now he could barely see out of his right eye.
But he said he was hanging in, that he was looking forward to watching his Anthony play for the Phillies that night on TV. Just the sight of his kid trying to go to the 5.5 hole was enough to keep him upbeat. But first he wanted to take a rest. He was tired. So I said goodbye for the last time.
It was 2:30.