I’m still in shock that Tony Gwynn has died. He was one of those icons you thought would live for decades, sort of like fellow slugger Ted Williams, but Gwynn left us at age 54 after battling salivary-gland cancer. Gwynn’s presence loomed large over baseball and San Diego, yet he seemed like one of the nicest, most relatable people around.
That was certainly true one day late in the 1997 season when I almost tripped over him.
It was the San Diego Padres’ last homestand of the season. I was working as co-news editor of the UCSD Guardian when we heard Chancellor Robert Dynes was going to throw out the first pitch that night (IIRC, it would’ve been the Wednesday, Sept. 17 game against the Colorado Rockies).
We thought it would make for a decent photo, but our photo editor had other assignments. We were on deadline, but I called for a press pass and headed for Qualcomm Stadium after grabbing a camera.
By the time I found parking (in the VIP area!) and got into the stadium, I was starting to run a bit late. After riding in a cramped and creaky old elevator to field level, I jogged down the tunnel toward the field where I was directed.
As I made my way through the cold, grey corridor, I started going a bit faster before I realized the tunnel had a slight downward slope.
I was going faster, faster and then I suddenly saw a player sitting on the floor, lacing up his shoes. If I didn’t do something, I would’ve crashed into him. I felt I couldn’t stop safely so I kind of skip-hopped to the right.
As I passed him, I heard a kind voice saying something like, “Woah, slow down there buddy” with a little chuckle.
It was Tony Gwynn.
I’m pretty sure it was him, although I passed by in a blur. I shouted out “Sorry, sir” and continued toward the field. I was able to get to the photographers’ area near the dugout with just a few moments to spare before Dynes threw out the first pitch (with three other people — it was Community Day or something).
The photo didn’t run — it was double-exposed somehow.
As I’ve retold the story over the years, I’m deeply thankful that I didn’t run into him. I would’ve been horrified if Gwynn was somehow injured because of my actions. Also, in hindsight, I appreciated his polite response, other people may have not reacted so well to such an interruption.
That was my only near-encounter with Gwynn. It would’ve been great to have known him better and to share some firsthand encounters like Keith Olbermann (video).
At the same time, nearly every San Diegan who was around during Gwynn’s 20-year career knew him in some fashion and his death leaves a hole in the city’s psyche. Even when the Padres were in the dumps (as they were in 1997), San Diegans could always look to Tony Gwynn — I had to check, but he won his final of eight National League batting titles in 1997.
After Gwynn retired, he remained a fixture of the San Diego community, coaching the San Diego State University baseball team. He was also a subtle, yet well-regarded presence in the north San Diego County city of Poway where he lived (one of my sisters has stories of trick-or-treating at his house).
To be sure, Gwynn was a great baseball player and one of the greatest hitters of all time. When I look back, I’ll recall those performances and remember his dedication, persistence and enthusiasm at both sport and life.
Cover photo: In this July 29, 2007 file photo, Tony Gwynn holds his National Baseball Hall of Fame plaque during induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y. Gwynn, the Hall of Famer with a sweet left-handed swing who spent his entire 20-year career with the Padres and was one of San Diego’s most beloved athletes, died of cancer Monday, June 16, 2014. He was 54. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)
Photo 2: A mourner looks up at the Tony Gwynn “Mr. Padre” statue outside Petco Park on Monday, June 16, 2014, in San Diego. Gwynn, an eight-time National League batting champion and a member of Baseball Hall of Fame, died Monday from cancer. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)