By Shannon Drayer
The baseball world is in mourning tonight as the game has lost one of its greatest players and human beings, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who passed away after a four-year battle with cancer.
“Tough is not the word,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon stated when asked to describe the news. “Waking up to that kind of news was pretty devastating. Tony was not only a person I considered a friend, but as far as hitting was concerned, a mentor as well. I look back now and sometimes you take things for granted, but to think that this guy took time out of his day every time we came to town or they came to town to sit down and talk to somebody like me about hitting and the game of baseball. That just blows my mind. To think that we lost him at the age of 54 is really, really tragic.”
M’s general manager Jack Zduriencik has known the Gwynn family for years, drafting Tony Gwynn, Jr. and hiring Chris Gwynn when he was with the Brewers. Zduriencik called the Gwynn family’s place in baseball “special” and appreciated what Tony gave to the game both while he was in it and as a coach at San Diego State.
“He had a really, really unique way about him where everybody was comfortable around him,” he said. “He was never the guy who went out there that was ‘Tony Gwynn.’ He was so comfortable in his own skin it wasn’t about him, it was about his teammates and his players.”
Joe Beimel, who faced Gwynn as a rookie starter with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2001, echoed Zduriencik’s and McClendon’s thoughts on Gwynn’s willingness to give back.
“One of my teammates I came up with asked him to sign a bat and he stopped and talked to him for twenty minutes,” he said. “Talked to him about baseball. At that time when you came up as a rookie, veterans didn’t even speak to you. It was really cool that he took the time to do that.”
Beimel has a unique connection to Gwynn, who he faced in one game. That game turned out to be a very eventful one for the then 24-year-old rookie.
“We were going over the scouting report and we get to Tony Gwynn and they are like, ‘This guy really doesn’t have any holes,'” he remembered. “There’s not one way that you can pitch him every time so you can get him out, so maybe you should just try to throw it down the middle. That’s what he will least expect it.”
“Uhhhh alright,” he continued with a laugh. “First at-bat I throw it right down the middle and he cracks a double. I ended up getting him out the second at-bat and the third time he came up I hung a slider and he hit it for a home run.”
Not just any home run. It was his 135th and what would turn out to be final home run of his career.
“At the time it wasn’t that cool but as the season went on I kept checking the box scores to see if he had homered and he didn’t so I was, ‘Yes! I gave up the final home run of Tony’s career!'”
Beimel was just one in a long and complete list of pitchers who were victimized by one of the best hitters the game has ever seen. Mariners hitting coach Howard Johnson played against him for years, and when asked what came to mind first when he heard the name Tony Gwynn he was quick with his reply.
“Perfection,” he said. “He broke hitting down to a science. He could describe things during a swing that a lot of guys couldn’t understand or ever saw.
“He always knew where his barrel was. That’s one thing I will always remember, is they guy knew where his bat was at all times. He could see the ball very, very well and recognize pitches probably better than anyone that I knew at that time. He was so good that they said just throw the ball down the middle.”
Johnson said that was the ultimate compliment to a hitter. It was no wonder, as pitcher sno doubt knew there was little chance they would strike him out.
“To think that in a 20-year career he struck out 434 times,” McClendon marveled. “Almost 10,000 at-bats, that’s just phenomenal. That’s 20 Ks a year. Hell, I did that in a week!”
The baseball career will be preserved forever in Cooperstown. The loss of the man and what he gave to the game on a daily basis is near impossible to replace.
“What a tremendous loss for baseball,” McClendon said. “My heart goes out to his family.”