By John Perrotto
There have been many emotional moments for Tony Gwynn Jr. in the past few weeks.
The death of his father, the Hall of Famer and Mr. Padre. The memorial service on the campus of San Diego State, where his father starred as a baseball and basketball player, had the ballpark named after him and was the head baseball coach. Gwynn Jr., a backup outfielder for the Phillies, received a standing ovation from the home fans at Citizens Bank Park in his first plate appearance back after being activated from the bereavement list on June 24.
Yet the younger Gwynn's heart remains heavy. The rest of the world lost a great baseball player and a man who became one of the most-beloved figures in the game because of his gregarious and infectious personality. But when the elder Gwynn died June 16 of mouth cancer, Tony Jr. lost his father, and that hurt doesn't fade away quickly.
"I'm in the grieving stages now and it's tough," the Phillies outfielder said last weekend as he sat at his locker in the visiting clubhouse at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. "It's like reality has set in now. There's a finality to it that he's gone and that is difficult to deal with. It's hard to stay focused on baseball sometimes because I'm thinking about my dad. It gets a little better every day, but it's still a difficult thing to deal with."
Sadly, this might have been a season to celebrate for Gwynn Jr.
After gaining nearly five full seasons of major league service time and playing in parts of eight seasons in the big leagues, Gwynn spent all last season with the Los Angeles Dodgers' Triple-A Albuquerque farm club in the Pacific Coast League. He fought his way back to the majors, though, after signing a contract with the Phillies on Dec. 18 and winning a spot on the major league roster in spring training.
Yet a phone call from his father in the early days of May suddenly made baseball seem insignificant. Senior had to sadly reveal to his only son that doctors had told him his cancer had become incurable and he likely had just a few months to live.
"It was devastating," Gwynn Jr. said.
The younger Gwynn's first reaction was to put baseball aside and rush back home to San Diego. However, the father would have none of that.
"He told me to stay right there because I had a season to play," Gwynn Jr. said. "He said there was no way he was going to let me walk away in the middle of the season. It was hard, though. My first instinct was to go home and spend as much time as I could with him. I felt I should be home."
Gwynn did what his father said, though, and remained with the Phillies while Gwynn Sr.'s condition gradually deteriorated. Father-son phone calls helped ease Gwynn Jr.'s mind to an extent, but it was still a struggle.
"It was hard to keep my focus," the 31-year-old outfielder said. "There were a lot of times over those two months where my mind wandered. I'm very fortunate to be in a great organization and have a great group of teammates who really supported me. They understood what was going on and they were always there for me. I wouldn't have been able to keep pushing on without them."
From a statistical standpoint, this season has been disastrous for Gwynn. He is hitting .165 with a .499 OPS in 60 games and 112 plate appearances. Just four other major league players with at least 100 plate appearances have a lower OPS --- Tampa Bay Rays catcher Jose Molina (.408), Atlanta Braves second baseman Dan Uggla (.476), San Diego Padres second baseman Jeff Gyorko (.482) and Oakland Athletics infielder Eric Sogard (.486).
However, the Phillies understand the emotional duress Gwynn has been through this season and the effect it has had on the 31-year-old.
"I can only imagine how difficult it has been for him," Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. "It's such a hard game to play and it has to be extremely hard when you are dealing with what he has had to deal with. The quality of his at-bats has definitely been better since he returned to the team [following his father's death]. I know it still have to be tough for him but he does look more relaxed now."
The notoriously tough Philadelphia fans have even cut Gwynn a break in a season in which their team is 37-51 and out of contention. During his June 24 return to baseball, Gwynn said he was overwhelmed by the prolonged standing ovation the 24,860 fans at Citizens Bank Park gave him.
"That's one of the greatest things that's ever happened to me," Gwynn said. "It was very emotional. I had a hard time keeping it all together. I really had to fight to hold back the tears. It was such a wonderful, heartfelt response. It's really hard to put into words what it meant to me. It's something I'll carry with me for the rest of my life."
The younger Gwynn hasn't received too many standing ovations during his career. He is self-aware, though, and long ago accepted that he may never be able to match the accomplishments of his father, who amassed 3,141 hits, won eight National League batting titles, compiled a .338 average over 20 seasons with the Padres, was selected to 15 All-Star Games and made the Hall of Fame in 2007 with a whopping 97.6 percent of the vote.
Tony Gwynn Jr. has just 380 career hits during his time with the Brewers (2006-08), Padres (2008-10), Dodgers (2011-12) and Phillies (2014). Yet he is back in the major leagues after the one-year detour to the Pacific Coast League and, in many ways, that helps with the healing because not a day goes by that someone does not stop him to talk about his father.
The sentiments are always the same from those offering condolences. They will say how Tony Gwynn Sr. was as fine of a man as they have ever met in the game and offer an anecdote about the kindness he showed to everyone. Gwynn Jr., with a personality just as warm and inviting as his father's, smiles every time.
"It never gets old," he said. "It always makes me feel good to know how much people liked him and how many lives he impacted. It makes me proud to be his son. It makes it easy to keep going now that he's gone."