John McGrath: Padres legend Gwynn always was All-Star talent, class act

Staff WriterJune 17, 2014 

Tony Gwynn was a 15-time National League All-Star whose 16th Midsummer Classic appearance has never been recognized in the record book.

But he appeared, to be sure. Learning of Gwynn’s death Monday at the age of 54 rekindled memories of the 2001 night at Safeco Field when the All-Star Game was interrupted so that Major League Baseball could honor the San Diego Padres legend and his Baltimore Orioles counterpart, Cal Ripken Jr.

Both had recently announced their plans to retire at the end of the season, and commissioner Bud Selig presented lifetime achievement awards to them before the sixth inning. By then, Ripken had stolen the show, making a surprise start at shortstop and then hitting a home run. He would be named MVP.

But Gwynn wasn’t overlooked. While a microphone was set up near the plate, the dugouts emptied. Players surrounded the Baltimore iron man and the human hitting machine from San Diego.

Noting the most fascinating of Gwynn’s achievements — for instance, his lifetime batting average of .415 against future Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux, who faced Gwynn 107 times without striking him out — would have required Selig to talk until midnight, so the commissioner limited the litany to the basics.

“A lifetime batting average of three-hundred and 38,” said Selig, referring to .338 in a quaint way, “which is 18th on the all-time list. Tony’s eight batting titles tied Honus Wagner for most in the National League. He hit .300 or better for 18 consecutive seasons.”

Then it was Gwynn’s turn to talk.

“The last 20 years have been the greatest ride, I think, you could ever be on,” he said before deflecting the spotlight to Ripken. “When Cal hit that home run, even though I’m on the NL side, that was pretty impressive.”

Gwynn’s timing was typically exquisite. The game’s most devoted student of hitting since his friend Ted Williams, he happened to be a baseball fan, too, and recognized the momentousness of Ripken’s home run.

When the game resumed, Fox broadcaster Steve Lyons went into the NL dugout to speak with Gwynn, so overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection that he appeared almost speechless. Almost. Among Gwynn’s talents was a gift of gab. He’d talk to anybody, anywhere, about anything, and it didn’t matter if your station in life was not as exalted as his.

“Bud Selig came down yesterday and told me something was going to go on, but he didn’t tell me what,” Gwynn told Lyons. “I had no idea they’d stop the game and both sides were going to come over and shake my hand and give me a hug.”

The interview went on for three minutes, enough time for Gwynn to emphasize his core belief about how to succeed in a business that relies on trying. Seems he had made the rounds in the NL clubhouse during the All-Star workout day. He met with some of the younger players — guys such as the Houston Astros’ Lance Berkman and the Philadelphia Phillies’ Jimmy Rollins — “letting them know they can be as great as they want to be. You’ve just got to roll up your sleeves and say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna work as hard as I can.’ ”

Gwynn’s dedication to the craft — along with his physique, which made him appear, with each passing year, more prone to crush softball pitches in a beer-keg-goes-to-the-winner tournament than somebody more likely to get four hits in a game than strike out twice — masked the fact he was a terrific athlete.

A 5-foot-11 point guard whose assist records still stand at San Diego State, Gwynn could dribble and dish the rock with uncommon panache. His hand-eye coordination was off the charts, and yet he had the hops to dunk.

Realizing his destiny would be in baseball, Gwynn combined natural athletic ability with a roll-up-the-sleeves work ethic steeped in adaptability. Intrigued by Williams’ insistence that left-handed hitters should drive inside pitches, Gwynn hit 45 home runs after he turned 37, or as many as he hit during his first eight big-league seasons.

In 2001, hobbling because of a hamstring injury and assorted knee issues, he was nearing the end. Though his addition on the NL All-Star team’s roster was “honorary,” Gwynn was asked if he wanted to step into the batter’s box at Safeco Field, for old times’ sake.

He declined. He had missed 64 games before the break, and he figured he was undeserving of taking an at-bat away from one of the kids.

“We’ve got a lot of things going in the right direction in this game,” Gwynn said during his dugout interview.

The moment had come for him to get out of the way and ponder moving on to another career, which would be as baseball coach at his beloved San Diego State.

He was 41, his knees were sore, and he was very comfortable with the notion of Ripken being named MVP of the All-Star Game.

After a great ride that lasted 20 years, Tony Gwynn knew his time was up.

He was hitting .358.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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