Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn died Monday morning after a long battle with cancer. The 54-year-old Gwynn, whose infectious smile and laugh came to define San Diego baseball, has left us far too soon.
I could recite statistics, but you can look those up and be awed without my help. Short version: He could hit anything.
My fondest memories of the man known as Mr. Padre are of events that happened far from his home. The first came in Montreal, when he singled off Dan Smith for his 3,000th hit. Upon reaching first base, Gwynn hugged umpire Kerwin Danley, his former San Diego State teammate.
The second came in Cooperstown, when he and Cal Ripken Jr. were inducted into the Hall of Fame. I had driven from San Diego and found myself lost in a sea of Orioles jerseys. Gwynn got up and did what he always did, which is be engaging and gracious in discussing his own accomplishments and those who had helped him along the way.
I wore Padres gear that day and was approached afterward by several strangers who told me they'd had no idea what a great player and man Gwynn was. No surprise there, given that he spent his entire career on the wrong coast, in a city neglected by national media.
I smiled at everyone who told me how impressed they were with Gwynn. Of course you were, I thought to myself, he's Tony Gwynn.
Stats don't make the man, but one of Gwynn's bears remembering. He hit .394 in 1994, when a work stoppage denied him the opportunity to become the first player to hit .400 since his friend and mentor Ted Williams, a fellow San Diegan, did it in 1941.
That .394 is an astounding number. It's worthy of attention and respect, but not as much as the man himself was. On behalf of a city, a team, and baseball fans everywhere, I offer humble thanks for the privilege of having gotten to see him play. He made San Diego proud. I hope we did the same for him.