Skip to main content

The joy of Tony Gwynn

By Mike Downey
June 17, 2014 -- Updated 0055 GMT (0855 HKT)
<a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/16/sport/gwynn-baseball-death/index.html'>Tony Gwynn</a>, a Hall of Fame baseball player known as one of the game's all-time best hitters, died Monday, June 16, after a multiyear battle with salivary gland cancer. He was 54. Tony Gwynn, a Hall of Fame baseball player known as one of the game's all-time best hitters, died Monday, June 16, after a multiyear battle with salivary gland cancer. He was 54.
HIDE CAPTION
Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn
Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn
Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn
Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn
Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn
Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn
Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn
Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn
Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn
Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn
Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mike Downey: Tony Gwynn had dazzling baseball, but he kept his humility, common touch
  • He says in 9,288 official at-bats, he struck out 434 times. You threw it, Gwynn hit it
  • But he had something more, he says. He seemed eternally happy, sociable, without airs
  • Downey: He took obvious joy in the game and the trappings. Baseball mourns his loss

Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a frequent contributor to CNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN) -- They come in all sizes and shapes, athletes do, small and tall, round and lean. They come with all kinds of personalities as well. Some are cheerful as a cheerleader and sunny as a summer's morn. They do more than just impress you, on the field or off; they delight you.

Precious few have been the equal of Tony Gwynn, when it comes to a combination of superhuman prowess plus an everyman's way of coming across not as someone to idolize but more like your drop-by-for-coffee neighbor next door. When he died Monday, cut down at 54 by a mouth cancer that spread, Major League Baseball mourned.

Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn dies

Mike Downey
Mike Downey

The statistics of Anthony Keith Gwynn are so off-the-chart absurd, they almost make a baseball lover laugh out loud: In the 20 seasons he played (all for the same team, the San Diego Padres), he did not slug home runs the way Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds did; on the contrary, a mere 135 homers in all that time? Ha, you would think this Gwynn must have been a 98-pound weakling, rather than the chubby-cheeked, tubby-tummied specimen that he was.

What he did do was hit the ball.

In his two decades, in 9,288 official at-bats, Gwynn struck out a grand total of 434 times. A pitcher couldn't get a pitch by him. It was the old "like trying to throw a lamb chop past a wolf" kind of joke. You chucked it, Tony Gwynn knocked it. A single to left, to center, to right, wherever he darn well pleased. He looked like a slow-pitch softball batter who decided to poke a ball anywhere he liked. Except he did this against young, rock-abbed, iron-armed men who could hurl a hardball between 90 and 100 mph.

Gwynn's lifetime tally of 3,141 hits exceeded that of Rod Carew, Al Kaline, Roberto Clemente, Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig...

His career batting average of .338 was the kind kids fantasize about when they are up-and-comers, watching videos of themselves, trying to learn how to hit.

The ballpark figures this Hall of Famer etched into the game's record books are exceptional. Yet there was so much more to Gwynn: a perpetually happy and humble human being.

A couple of examples, just to get the ball rolling:

2007: Gwynn inducted into Hall of Fame
2007: Gwynn inducted into Hall of Fame

The year was 1984 and the San Diego Padres had made it to the World Series at last. Game 1 was about to be played there in southernmost Southern California, in a town known far more for its beauty than its baseball. Tony Gwynn sat in a dugout, taking on all comers, talking to reporters and teammates and TV cameramen and vendors and batboys. "Don't you just love baseball?" Gwynn asked at one point of no one in particular.

He and the Padres were expected by many to lose to the Detroit Tigers, a very strong team that year.

"If we do lose," Tony the non-Tiger said, "hooray for the Tigers. Somebody's going to win, so if it can't be us, hooray for them."

Don't you just love that? The lack of intensity, solemnity, fear that his observation would be interpreted in some negative way? Kirk Gibson, star of the opposing team, was the kind of guy who would have stared daggers at a teammate who fraternized with the enemy. Gwynn sought them out, trying to find Tigers before the game, eager as a frisky puppy to make friends and then go play.

He had a brother, name of Chris, who got to play on his team. In 1996, the Padres were up north in Tony's birthplace of Los Angeles for a big game. It was decided on a clutch 11th-inning double by a pinch-hitter -- yep, Chris Gwynn, the lesser of the Gwynn brothers historically, and it won the division championship for the Padres.

"Aren't you Chris Gwynn's brother?" a reporter joked.

"I am today!" Tony exulted.

He loved his brother. He loved pretty much everybody.

Including his own son, Tony Gwynn Jr., who also made it to the major leagues. Brother and son might not have been in Tony's league (as it were), but those Gwynns, they could play this game.

Tony Jr. was succinct and sincere on Twitter when the bad news came Monday: "Today I lost my Dad, my best friend and my mentor. I'm gonna miss u so much, pops."

Tony Gwynn and a habit all too common in baseball

He had a cherubic face and a soft and nasal voice, a little bit Walter Payton, a little bit Wayne Newton. He had the torso of a nonathlete and his cheeks were puffed by smokeless tobacco, a habit that likely killed him. He endured oral surgery in 2010 and again in 2012, and there had been a growing dread that his days were numbered.

Tony Gwynn is gone? Say it ain't so.

He didn't play for New York or St. Louis or San Francisco. He played against them. But he played for all of us, watching him with that bat, waggling it, digging in, smacking a ball where it couldn't be caught. He would smile, patting the other side's fielder on the back, while the rest of us turned to each other, shook our heads and said something like, "Man, that guy can hit."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT