As a boy growing up in San Diego, I found it inconceivable that Tony Gwynn had been born in Los Angeles. It did not make sense because there was nobody, or nothing -- not the Coronado Bridge, not the Navy ships, not the temperate weather -- that seemed more San Diegan than him.
I was incredulous when someone first pointed this fact out to me. I was floored after confirming the fact from numerous stories and books about him. So I did something that only an irrational fan would do: I chose to ignore that little tidbit.
Tony Gwynn, who also played basketball and baseball at San Diego State, was ours, and nothing that anybody could say or write could ever change that fact.
Now he's gone at the young age of 54 after a bout with cancer, and all of us who grew up idolizing him weep.
We weep for what this means for his family, for what it means to our childhood and what it means for a San Diego sports scene that continues to be mired in tragedy. The city's best football team, the Super Bowl runner-up 1994 Chargers, has suffered a stunning number of tragic deaths, including the suicide of Junior Seau, arguably the most popular Charger. The 1984 World Series runner-up Padres lost second baseman Alan Wiggins to AIDS after a battle with drug addiction. The 1998 World Series runner-up Padres lost Ken Caminiti, a former NL MVP, to a drug overdose. Earlier this year, longtime Padres announcer and World War II hero Jerry Coleman also died.
Now, the loss of the city's greatest sports icon is a crushing blow.
What does it say about a man that so many people from San Diego, including myself, received countless texts and messages from mourning friends and family, who felt as if they had lost a relative? Yes, he was undoubtedly ours.
All of us who have ever rooted for the Padres, if we're being honest, would probably admit that they have been a wretched franchise. Up until Gwynn's arrival, the most notable thing about them was a chicken mascot. Dave Winfield could have been a beloved player, but he left to pursue Yankees riches.
That's what made Gwynn so unique. He had the opportunity to leave, and he chose not to do so. He turned down more money to stay in San Diego. Very quickly, Gwynn became the most redeeming thing about the team. Most of the time, he was the only reason to watch.
Gwynn was everything that the franchise was not: He remained loyal even while the team often traded many of its stars. He was an all-time great for a team mostly stuck in failure. He never struck out for a team that always seemed to swing and miss in some way or another.
He was loyal for a fan base that often couldn't even be bothered enough to care about the team. Gwynn mostly played in front of empty home stadiums where not enough fans cherished his greatness.
It always seemed so sad that Gwynn had gotten his 3,000th hit in front of a sparse crowd in Montreal. He warranted a grander celebration. Instead all he got was warm applause from the announced crowd of 13,540 at the Olympic Stadium. Ultimately it was fitting. He was never appreciated enough.
But the accomplishments are undeniable: 3,141 hits, good for 19th all time; a .338 batting average, which ranks 18th all time, and is the highest of any player whose career started after 1939; and 15 career All-Star Game appearances in 20 years. Remarkably, Gwynn never struck out more than 40 times in a season. His .394 batting average during the strike-shortened 1994 season is the highest since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941.
The Padres, nor their fans, never really deserved Gwynn. We were lucky that he never left us, even during his weakest moments. He was the baseball head coach at San Diego State, an announcer for the Padres and an ever present icon, even while undergoing debilitating cancer treatment.
He was the perfect ambassador for a city, that like him, often went overlooked.
Gwynn's slate as a player was not completely clean. Several former teammates accused him of being selfish. But the great ones are always selfish in some way. That's what it took to be a superstar. Yet Gwynn could never be accused of being ill-prepared or not working hard enough. Gwynn was so obsessed with being great that he revolutionized the game through his use of video at a time when such a thing was unheard of. He would often cart heavy video equipment on the road so that he could scout opposing pitchers or so he could review some of his own at-bats. Now every team in the majors heavily uses video and players travel with iPads to scout pitchers and at-bats.
But his greatest accomplishment may have been what he did for San Diego. Gwynn most likely single-handedly saved baseball in the city. Without him, it's conceivable to think that the franchise might have moved elsewhere. Instead, now a modest but ardent Padres fan base waits for the next superstar to capture the city's heart like Gwynn once did. It's likely no one will ever do so.
The greatest thrill of my professional life was the first time I ever interviewed Gwynn several years ago. I had only known him as a fan. But as part of a story I had been reporting about left-handed hitters facing left-handed pitchers, I luckily ran into him at Petco Park.
We spoke for more than an hour in the dugout. Near the end of the conversation, which had ended only because the security guards were clearing the dugout for the start of the game, I told Gwynn how much I had idolized him as a kid. I told him how I wished I had grown up left-handed like him. I told him how I had gone to his offseason baseball clinic, how often I had gone out of the way to get his autograph and how many times I had skipped class in high school just to watch him play.
Gwynn smiled and thanked me for being a fan, and he seemed genuinely touched even though he had probably heard the same story countless times from boys, men, who had been in awe of his presence. That was the reward for his loyalty. No San Diego fan would ever have a bad thing to say about him. Gwynn would only see admiration in life, and now in death. He would always be ours.