Mr. Padre: A better man than a hitter

I had every intention on writing a Father’s Day Column, albeit it two days late.

Then I found out that one of the few professional athletes whom I have looked up to, Tony Gwynn, Mr. Padre, passed away Monday after his battle with salivary gland cancer.

He was 54.

I am 54.

He was 17 days older than I.

I watched him play basketball for David “Smokey” Gaines and the San Diego State Aztecs.

Gwynn was good.

He ran that team with precision from his point guard slot.

He was so good that the San Diego Clippers drafted him.

Gwynn was also drafted in the third round by the San Diego Padres and chose, rather wisely, to take his professional skills to the diamond.

He rapped two base hits when the Padres called him up and stayed for 20 years.

His final season was 2001 and I remember being the head pro at Steubenville Country Club and Mike DiDomenico treated me to a day at PNC Park, scalped tickets and all, so I was able to watch Gwynn one more time before he retired.

I will never forget that kindness by Mike.

I really would have liked to been at Cooperstown in July 2007 to watch he and Cal Ripken Jr. get inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I never made it.

Now, I wished I would have.

But, 20-20 is easy.

Gwynn wasn’t just a great ambassador for San Diego, he was a great ambassador for baseball, for life.

He easily was the nicest professional athlete I ever interviewed.

And, of all the people I have interviewed, probably the nicest.

His laugh was infectious.

It seemed he always had a smile on his face.

Baseball players young and old need to google him to watch him hit.

It was magic.

His hands with a bat were equally as gifted as Michaelangelo’s with a brush.

I wasn’t the Padres beat writer, but I covered my share of games and it was always easy to drift toward Gwynn’s locker, where he held court.

The man was gracious with his time.

He was gracious with everything.

I was at Jack Murphy Stadium, or Qualcomm, for Game 4 for the 1984 NLCS and watched the Padres, down 2-1 in games and the game tied at 5, win it on a Steve Garvey walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth. Gwynn singled with one out off closer Lee Smith.

I was sitting on press row the next day for Game 5 when Tim Flannery’s grounder rolled through Leon Durham’s legs at first and was in the clubhouse while champagne flew and lockers were draped with plastic.

I was then in the same press row for Game 1 of the World Series, eventually won by the Detriot Tigers in five games.

Gwynn really was the first professional baseball player who used video.

He combed through video to check out pitchers like college coaches do now to find the next big recruit.

Gwynn was such a good hitter and Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez never struck him out in 129 at-bats.

His numbers are mind boggling.

7 Sliver Sluggers

Career .338 hitter.

5-time Gold Glove winner.

The only season when he had more strikeouts than walks was in 1982, the season he was called up and played in 54 games. It was the only season he didn’t hit .300. He hit .289.

19 straight .300 seasons second to Ty Cobb’s 23.

One 3-strikeout game. It was against Bob Welch.

12 seasons had more doubles than strikeouts.

Never struck out more than 40 times in a season.

Struck out twice in a game 34 times.

One of 4 players with more than 3,000 hits and less than 500 strikeouts.

434 career strikeouts in 10,232 plate appearances. He struck out 4.24 percent of the time.

34 straight games in 1995, at age 35, without striking out.

Hit .350 or better 7 times.

8 batting titles.

Hit .300 or better in all 20 seasons.

The only player in the last 80 years with 330 stolen bases and a .338 average.

15-time All-Star.

297 3-hit games.

45 4-hit games.

9 5-hit games.

One of 9 players with more than 500 doubles and at least a .335 average.

One of 11 players with at least 3,000 hits and 300 stolen bases.

Of those in the 3,000-hit club, third on the list with one strikeout per 21.4 at-bats.

  • 5.5 hole – between the shortstop and third baseman, his favorite place to slap a single.

Played 2,440 games.

Finished with 3,141 hits.

Batted .394 in strike-shortened season of 1994.

Batted .403 in 697 at-bats from July 3, 1993 to May 9, 1995, 179 games.

97.8 percent of the Hall of Fame vote.

Now, to climb on my soapbox (not that it matters), all those numbers and Gwynn, like every other hall of famer, including his inductee brother, Ripken, has not been a unanimous choice for Cooperstown because the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America are a bunch of holier-than-thou goofs who believe no one deserves to be on everyone’s ballot.

The reason: Because no one has ever, so no one will ever be.

Thanks, I’m done.

Gwynn was a far better person than a player.

He was genuine.

Gwynn has insisted, to anyone who would listen, his cancer was caused by his constant use of chewing tobacco.

And, today’s kids should read everything they can about Gwynn for a variety of reasons, chewing tobacco being one of them.

I have never been a fan of covering professional athletes and sports.

I have covered the Chargers, the Padres, the Clippers, the U.S. Open in golf, the PGA Tour event in San Diego and other things, but Gwynn, and he alone, made me wish I was the Padres beat reporter during my time in the area.

Gwynn managed to anger the MLB Players Association because, back in the day when he could have tested the free agent waters, Gwynn chose the hometown discount and stayed in San Diego.

He loved the city and also didn’t want to uproot his family and go somewhere else.

I love covering high school athletes and, to all athletes, Gwynn is someone to be admired, to learn about, to learn from, and to emulate.

(Mathison, a Weirton resident, is the sports editor of the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times and can be contacted at and followed on Twitter at @MathisonMike)