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Remembering Tony Gwynn: San Diego, Major League Baseball loses a rare true person

Fans have placed flowers and other tributes at the base of Tony Gwynn's statue at Petco Park. (AP)

Fans have placed flowers and other tributes at the base of Tony Gwynn’s statue at Petco Park. (AP)

By Loren Kopff

Four years after I moved from Plano, TX, just northeast of Dallas, to the community of Mira Mesa in suburban San Diego, Tony Gwynn made his debut for the San Diego Padres. It would only be ironic that the man who spent his entire 20-year baseball career in Mission Valley wearing number 19, played his first game on the 19th day of July in 1982.

On June 16, 2014, Gwynn succumbed to cancer at the age of 54. As big of a sports fan as I am, and a Padres fan since 1979, Gwynn was, without a doubt, my favorite athlete during his playing career. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I went to San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium (now Qualcomm Stadium) to see the Padres and my favorite player.

But Gwynn was more than the person who won eight National League batting titles and had 3,141 hits, most of which went in the direction of the famous 5.5 hole between third base and shortstop. Gwynn was the opposite of what the vast majority of baseball players, as well as professional athletes, are these days.

Gwynn, who was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame on July 29, 2007, played for the love of the game, not what was in his bank account. I guess that’s why, in this age of free agency, not too many players spend their entire career with one team. Gwynn played baseball the right way, which is the fair way. He didn’t need to be juiced up on steroids or other performance enhancing drugs to show why he batted .338 for his career.

It’s no coincidence that the sports jerseys I possess have the number 19 on it, not because of my birth date, but because it’s the number of my all-time favorite athlete. I remembered watching all of those Padres games, as bad as they were, with Gwynn in right field. I remembered hearing the thunderous applause from the fans at the 1992 All-Star game in San Diego when his name was announced while watching from the left field seats in the Plaza Level.

I remembered seeing Gwynn in Game 2 of the 1984 World Series against Detroit, the same year that he won his first batting title. He went one for three that game and had an outfield assist. That would be the only game the Padres won in the World Series. I remembered driving on Mira Mesa Blvd. in front of my high school the moment he collected his 3,000th hit in Montreal on Aug. 6, 1999. I remember going to his final game on Oct. 7, 2001, a 14-5 loss to Colorado.

But most of all, I’ll remember Gwynn for the person he was off the field. I’m not a big autograph person but the one prized autograph I cherish is the one from Gwynn. I can’t remember the year, but one night while checking out at a Wherehouse Music store in Poway, an employee behind the counter pointed to this then-slender person and asked me if that was Tony Gwynn. I replied with a ‘yes’ and then asked her if she had a piece of paper so I could get his autograph. She handed me an envelope, I walked over to Gwynn and politely asked him for his autograph, which he simply wrote, ‘Best Wishes Tony Gwynn’.

He was the type of person who wouldn’t shy away from any autograph or charge fans extra to get his autograph. I can’t say that for a lot of athletes these days. He was the type of person that could carry on a conversation for hours and hours. I only wish I had the opportunity to interview him when he was in the prime of career.

In a mid-market city like San Diego, Gwynn was the topic of conversation just about every day. He was what prompted people to go out to the Murph 81 times a year and see. He was one of a handful of San Diego sports athletes that was always the talk of the town. I couldn’t wait to see the San Diego Tribune each morning to see how many hits he collected the night before, then talk about it with my friends on the Mira Mesa High Marquee newspaper staff during first period.

The city of San Diego has been stricken with the loss of three icons. First it was former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, who passed away on May 2, 2012. Then it was longtime Padres broadcaster Jerry Coleman, who left us on Jan. 5 of this year. Coleman, Gwynn and Seau were affectionately known just by their first names. But the loss of Gywnn hurts the most and he will be missed by all. Thanks for the memories, Tony.

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