Monday, June 16, 2014
Tony Gwynn, from the cutting room floor
Much has already been said about the untimely passing of Tony Gwynn, and likely almost all of that more eloquent that I could have mustered. So I'll just share this:
In 2010, I was writing a feature for Major League Baseball's All-Star Game program, and as the game that year was in Anaheim, my assignment was an article on the SoCal baseball culture. Gwynn grew up in Long Beach (Poly Jackrabbits!), went to college at San Diego State, played a 20-year Hall of Fame career for the Padres, and went back to be the coach at San Diego State. So, yeah, he was about as dyed-in-the-wool in that culture as you get.
Gwynn had just coached phenom pitcher Stephen Strasburg at San Diego State, and although it wasn't germane to the feature, I had to pick his brain about Strasburg. The quotes below have never been published until now, but really show, I think, just how enthused Gwynn was to have such a great young player on his team, how much he learned every day from people who were 30 years his junior, and the charge he got out of sharing his love of baseball with the next generation.
In short, these quotes show just what kind of man Tony Gwynn was.
“I describe it as being in the presence of greatness. You just kinda knew. He had that ‘it’ quality in addition to the great stuff.
“But what impressed me more than anything—even more than his pitching!—was how he handled himself through all the stuff that was going on around him. We kind of saw it coming the middle of his sophomore year when he was throwing 98, 99 miles an hour consistently. We sat him down and said, ‘You are going to be the most talked-about college player of today, and perhaps the most talked-about in the history of college baseball. You need to prepare yourself for that. Now if it gets to be too much, let us know. We’ll play the bad guy for you.’ And…we never had to do anything. To see this all unfold right in front of your face and see him take everything in stride was amazing. And then to see the performance on top of it was double amazing. I mean, 13-1 with scrutiny I don’t know any college player ever had to endure. Amazing.
“Every city we went to, it was like having a rock star on tour. Me being the coach here, I was used to our bus pulling up, and maybe 2-3 people would be waiting to see me to get something signed. I’d sign some old baseball cards of theirs. But last year was great because they’d fly right past me and go straight to Stephen! It was a nice break! And there were way more people. And to see how he’d handle it all was great—fans, media, scrutiny, criticism—it didn’t matter. He was the most talked-about college player in the country, and took everything in stride.
“You know he’s gong to pitch in the big leagues. We knew that when he was a sophomore. His temperament is perfect. He’s a nice kid, very unassuming, and always works hard to get better. He just ‘gets it.’’
“When he left for spring training this year, he asked me a question I don’t think I’ve ever heard from a college player. He said, ‘Coach, what do I do when I want to make the team out of spring training, but I don’t think they’re going to let me?’ And I said ‘Stephen, the answer is really easy—you just pitch well. You go do what you do, you pitch well, and you accept whatever decision they make. But you pitch well, and good things are going to happen.’ That’s what he did! 3-0 in the spring, and down on the first cut. Now knowing him, I know he’s disappointed. But I also know he’s gonna work hard and keep pitching well. I think before the year is out, we’ll see him in the big leagues. We might see him by May! But I can tell you: Mentally, he’s prepared. He’s ready. I expect him to excel at the big league level.
“You don’t get into college coaching for the money. You do it because you want to help prepare guys for what’s out there. You want to teach. It was a privilege working with Stephen, teaching him. He was an easy study."