Just last month I was packing away some of the mementos of Abby’s youth and I lingered, lost in several minutes of memories, over the glove we bought when she started Little League baseball.

I remember well the day we went to a local sporting goods giant to buy the glove. There were dozens and dozens of styles to choose from, all bearing the signatures of Major League Baseball players. As I examined them the signature on the glove suddenly became as important to me as the glove itself. I wanted to be sure the player on her glove was a good person first, a good baseball player second, in case she ever asked. I chose a glove with the signature of Tony Gwynn, knowing I could tell her about a player who respected the game, his teammates and the fans above himself. In an era when such was rare he spent his entire 20 year major league career with one team, the San Diego Padres. Several times he accepted less money than the open market would bring to insure the Padres would be able to put as many winning pieces in place as possible. Twice his efforts, on and off the field, paid off in trips to the World Series.

In 1998 the Padres faced the Yankees in the World Series. Gwynn took his son on the cross country trip so, together, they could visit Monument Park at Yankee Stadium, that they both could better understand the history and tradition of baseball among monuments to many of the men who wrote that history. It was that respect for the game that made Tony Gwynn excel as a player, and excel he did. He understood the art of hitting like no other player since Ted Williams, apologies to Wade Boggs.

In 16 of his 20 seasons Gwynn played in 110 or more games. In 15 of those seasons he was an All Star. The one season he wasn’t he only hit .313 with 70 runs batted in. Eight times he was the National League batting champion on the way to a .338 lifetime batting average with 3,141 career hits. Perhaps the most remarkable statistic of Tony Gwynn’s career was his 434 strikeouts, an average of fewer than 22 a year. Only once in his career did he strike out more than 35 times, when he fanned 40 times in his non all star season, 1988. In 1986 he had a National League leading 642 at bats and fanned just 35 times while hitting .329.

In 2007 Tony Gwynn was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, a first ballot entry. After his playing career he went on to coach the San Diego State University baseball team. It was during that time that he was diagnosed with oral cancer. Twice he underwent surgery for cancerous tumors in his cheeks, the second surgery was problematic and Gwynn never recovered from the disease. It was important to him that young people understand it was something he had done to himself, the cancer was the result of years of chewing tobacco and the message was clear, “Don’t do it!”

Tony Gwynn was much too young, only 54 years old, when the cancer finally claimed him yesterday. I plan to take that glove back out of storage and make sure Abby has it, just in case, some day, she has a Little Leaguer who needs a role model to look up to. There rarely has been a better one.

With a comment from the sports world, I’m Scott Gray.


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