SAN DIEGO -- In late April, I surprised him at the hospital. He was in a wheelchair. His hair was fully gray. He couldn't open his right eye. He could only halfway open his mouth. He was on oxygen. The purest hitter of our generation was dying.
You can't prepare yourself for that. Not when you knew him like I did. I was a rookie Padres beat writer in 1985; he'd won his first batting title in 1984. I knew him when his vision was 20-10, when he considered 1-for-4 a bad day at the office, when he used to write "5.5 hole" on his cleats. That day in the hospital, I would have done anything to see a young Tony Gwynn again. And then I looked down at his feet. He was wearing his old baseball shower shoes. On them was his scribbled number: 19. He was 19 to the end.
He thought I came to write about him that day. But I was really there to cheer up the man who spent 20 seasons cheering up a city. To live in San Diego is to live and breathe Tony Gwynn. My 12-year-old son, born a year after Gwynn retired, wore No. 19 in Encinitas Little League. He and a thousand other kids in town. Petco Park's address is 19 Tony Gwynn Way. His statue sits right behind where he played: right field. If the name Cal Ripken says Baltimore, then the name Tony Gwynn says San Diego.
He played basketball and baseball at San Diego State. He was drafted by the Padres and the San Diego Clippers on the same day. He played here 20 seasons. He could have left via free agency any number of times -- because the Padres are in a small market and let player after player walk -- but Gwynn always took "the hometown discount.''
Other Gwynns kept following him to the club. His brother, Chris, had an RBI for the Padres on the last day of the '96 season to beat the Dodgers and clinch the division. Tony's son, Anthony, would later roam the outfield for the Padres, too. Tony's daughter, Anisha, sang the national anthem here.
This may be a beach town, but Tony made it blue collar. He was the first big league hitter to videotape and watch every one of his at-bats. I would get to the ballpark at 2:30 p.m. for a 7 o'clock night game, and there was Tony, all alone, taking early batting practice. He thought he was a terrible hitter; that's what made him a Hall of Famer. That's why he was able to win eight batting titles and have a career average of .338, the highest since his friend and fellow San Diegan Ted Williams. Tony always told me he was motivated by fear -- fear of going 0-for-5. At 2:30, every day, he'd hit upward of 100 balls to the 5.5 hole -- between shortstop and third -- and then lope back to the clubhouse ...
For another pinch of chewing tobacco.
I guess, if you want to get technical, baseball killed him. Because he first began to chew at rookie ball in Walla Walla, Washington. He was so paranoid that his swing would fall to pieces overnight that he would dip smokeless tobacco to take the edge off.
He told me he had the same morning habit for years -- brush your teeth, then fire in a dip -- and that he would go through a can and a half of Skoal a day. I remember the cup he used to keep by his locker to spit into. One day at home, his young son, Anthony, thought that cup was full of juice and took a sip. "It was gross,'' Anthony told me once. From that moment on, Anthony vowed he'd never chew.