Tony Gwynn used fear as motivation

But it was too late for Tony. "I was addicted," he once told me. He would sneak out of his house late at night -- "like a criminal,'' he said -- to buy his tobacco at a convenience store. If his wife, Alicia, had known, she would've socked him. She wanted him to quit, begged him to quit, threatened to leave him if he didn't quit. He tried bubble gum, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and synthetic chew, but baseball wasn't baseball without the real stuff.

"I'm a tobacco junkie,'' he told me.

Until it gave him cancer of the salivary gland in 2010.

•  •  •

Cancer -- talk about a fastball to the head. He worked to beat it the same way he worked to go to the 5.5 hole. At the time of his diagnosis, he was the head baseball coach at San Diego State and promised them he'd be back after facial surgery, chemo and radiation. But when he returned, his face partially paralyzed, it was hard to look at him, hard to face this fact: Tony Gwynn didn't have the strength to smile. What had made him special -- and this may be part of his legacy -- is that he was the most congenial superstar I ever came across in my 30-year career. His laugh -- part hyena, part grammar school -- would enter the room a minute before he did. You could hear his giggle a half-mile away. Cancer took that away.

He beat it temporarily, but then the growths came back ... and came back again. His father, Charles, had died young of heart problems. Death crossed Tony's mind a lot. When I visited with him at the hospital, he thought I had come to write his obit. About a week earlier, there'd been a mishap during one of his cancer treatments. From what I'm told, he'd lost oxygen and was suddenly barely able to move. It was almost like a stroke, and he was sent to a rehab hospital to learn how to walk again. He knew his body was failing. He knew something perilous had happened to him, and he wasn't going to lie: He was scared.

I wanted to change the subject, so I brought up baseball. For the first time all day, he lit up. His greatest moment was his home run at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the '98 World Series, off of David Wells. His most disappointing was the '94 baseball strike. His batting average was .394 on Aug. 11, 1994, the day the players went on strike. If he'd had four more hits -- either four dying quails or four lucky nubbers -- he would have finished at .400, the first hitter to do so since Williams. Without the strike, I believe Gwynn would have done it, and he did too. He could've handled the media scrutiny. He would've taken his early BP at 2:30 and been all smiles at 6:30.

So his baseball life hadn't been perfect. Over the years, teammates were jealous of his popularity (see Jack Clark), and even upper management seemed threatened by him. Maybe he'd gotten too big in town for them. How he was never hired as the Padres' hitting coach is beyond me. They could've talked him out of coaching at San Diego State. They could've done more than just hire him as a broadcaster. John Moores, the owner when Tony retired, promised him a lifetime contract in 2001. But over the years, the two drifted apart.

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