As we all know by now, on June 16th, 2014, former Major League Baseball Player and Hall of Famer “Mr. Padre” Tony Gwynn passed away at age 54 from complications of cancer that was diagnosed in 2011. Tony Gwynn’s family, the baseball world and the community he lived and worked in and the lives he touched for his 20 seasons long Major League Baseball career spent entirely in San Diego, have lost a hero.
At the time of his death, Tony Gwynn was the head baseball coach at San Diego State University since taking over for former coach Jim Dietz in 2002. Tony Gwynn was only one of four coaches to lead the Aztecs’ baseball team since 1936. SDSU’s baseball field was renovated in 1997, and re-named Charlie Smith Field/ Tony Gwynn Stadium. As an Aztec himself, Tony Gwynn played four years of basketball and three years of baseball before moving on to become a hitting sensation (3,141) in Major League Baseball and subsequently returning to his alma mater as Coach Gwynn.
I could sit here and write of every record, statistic and accomplishment Tony Gwynn had on and off the athletic playing field but that is not the primary focus of what I would like to convey. Statistics can be found anywhere.
What I would like to focus on is that Tony Gwynn made innumerable contributions on and off the field in a career defined as an athlete, as a player and a coach. His career spanned 20 years in the bigs and 12 years of service at the helm of the Aztecs, for a career in baseball spanning over 30 years. To me, this says that Gwynn’s commitment to his work and career was in place until the day he died. While battling cancer. Not while in or enjoying retirement.
Writing the last sentence of the above paragraph made me pause. I’m insinuating the fact that Tony Gwynn could have retired after being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007. Called it a career. Retired for any reason. But he did not. He chose to stay connected to doing what he loved to do, and what he did best, which was be involved in baseball and all that baseball gave to him, and that which he kept giving back.
In today’s world, is it possible to have a 32 year career at a minimum, basically encompassing two employers? Do you know anyone who is or can or has accomplished this type of career achievement? Or know anyone who has chosen to stay in their respective career for that long even though he or she might have had the means to retire?
I personally do not know anyone that meets this criteria, or anyone who might be capable of doing so, not because of lack of ability or focus, but because of how the work force operates across all industries in general today. One only needs to look at Major League Baseball, or any other professional sport anywhere, to find the answer to my questions above. I might be mistaken, but the Yankees’ Derek Jeter is ending a similarly long career in MLB, but after him, I can’t identify another player – employee – with such service and tenure, or the opportunity to accomplish this.
The ensuing outpouring of media coverage after Gwynn’s death, social, print, online and broadcast, has been incredible and positive. There is no mention of scandal, no seediness, no drugs, no racism, no rehab story, no infidelity, no divorce, no cheating in all it’s forms, no hiding or covering something up, no insider trading, no scams, no recalls, no guns, no gambling, no killing, no war, no greed. As far as I know, just a man who lived and worked and contributed to society as a hero and an example to so many.
I did not have the pleasure of “working” with Gwynn, but I can say that I operated a few “cubicles” away from him from time to time, which I am grateful for.
I got my sports writing career started largely in 1986 by working part time for the largest metro daily newspaper here in San Diego as a clerk in the sports department. It was a big break for a 20 year old sill taking journalism classes at SDSU.
One of the responsibilities of the clerks was to go on photo runs, meaning there was no digital photography or way to transmit photos electronically from the field yet. So a runner was sent out from the sports department to sporting events around town to pick up the canisters of 35mm film from the photographer on scene, and race those back to the lab to be developed for use in time to make print deadline, even if the event was still in progress. I think most of the other clerks really didn’t like going on the runs, but I took to it like water, and soon, everyone was happy that I was going on every photo run there was. Sometimes I was only scheduled for a three hour shift just to do photo runs, and that was the end of my work responsibilities for the night. Then again, maybe it was a way of keeping me out of the office while allowing me to retain my job!
Imagine having a media pass to be able to walk down the tunnel and into the dugout and to the photographer’s pit at Jack Murphy Stadium and be that close to your home town baseball team. I appeared so many times, that relationships with a few players developed casually. Most notably with Tim Flannery, Ed Whitson, Goose Gossage and occasionally a nod and a word with Tony.
I’d have a cigarette with Whitson in the tunnel and talk pitching while he was in between innings. He liked the company. Flannery always looked forward to my presence because he found out I loved surfing, and he wanted a surf report every time I showed up, because there was a clause in his contract that stated he could not surf during the active season. So I kept his stoke level up when he could not be in the water. Lots of people compared my pitching style and responsibilities when I was a non-professional player to that of Gossage, and I loved speaking with him about his time with the Yankees, as I was in the stands in the Bronx watching him before he (and I) came to San Diego.
So in reality, the players were in the dugout working, and I was working. And even though my visits to the photo pit were brief 15 and 30 minute periods at the most, I was there so many times over the years that I’m happy to say that my presence was almost anticipated every home game between 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Sometimes if I was even a minute late (punctuality counts), I’d emerge from the tunnel and half the bench would be like, “Oh, hey, there you are!” “You’re late you slacker!” “Give me the surf report I hear it’s really good!” “Time for a smoke!” Then I’d look at the scoreboard and respond back, “Let’s get some runs!” and clap my hands together three times, at which time more than few baseballs would come flying my way and I’d have to duck and get laughed at. I wish I could be back there with Tony and Tim and Ed and Goose again. Not because they were Major League Baseball players. But because we were working.
SDSU Head Coach Tony Gwynn walks back to the dugout, March 14, 2014. Photo: Finkelstein
Decades later, this year, I found myself covering NCAA Division I baseball on my own time and submitting game day stories and photos of the University of San Diego and San Diego State University baseball teams as a contributor to local sports blogs on a pro bono basis, to re-connect to the game and sports writing, which had become a thing of the past for me. Returning to this mode was more than spectacular. And I had the privilege to be “working” again in the stadium that bears Gwynn’s name.
This season’s highlight for me was covering two city championship games between USD and SDSU, a long-standing cross town rivalry. The teams split the two games. When one team was on the road and the other team home, I covered the team that was at home. As an un-credentialed member of the media per se reporting with notebook, pen, paper, laptop and digital camera from the stands, I got to meet coaches, fans, players, parents of players, students, administrators and occasionally got invited onto the field, and into the dugout and clubhouse for interviews and more photo opportunities. It was difficult seeing Gwynn battling the cancer, with assistant coaches picking up responsibilities, but Gwynn was always there, working at what he loved to do.
I thought that publishing a piece about Gwynn as related to “work and career” would be a fitting tribute to his decades-long service to this community and professional sports in every respect, and his storied career as an athlete, professional baseball player and NCAA baseball coach and charitable contributions is nothing short of a dedicated, heroic and legendary man.
PHOTOS: It is important to note that I took the accompanying photographs during the first of two games of the city championship between SDSU and USD, a game played on March 4, 2014, prior to Gwynn’s passing. The photo of the players in a pre-game huddle is in no way associated with mourning the loss of their coach. However, with the stadium name in the background and the sentiment that the photo evokes, I wanted to include it. The other photos show Gwynn and USD’s Rich Hill going over grounds rules prior to the start of the contest, and Gwynn walking back to the SDSU dugout.