Gwynn recalls father as big day nears
With Hall beckoning, outfielder thinks of his mentor
SAN DIEGO -- The void is still there and will be always. At his son's wedding last month, on the day he smacked his 3,000th hit, on the day he homered at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the 1998 World Series, on the day in 2001 he retired from baseball at Qualcomm Stadium and most certainly on that day in July when he will stand at the podium in Cooperstown, N.Y., and join the pantheon of the baseball gods.That Tony Gwynn will be selected to the 2007 Hall of Fame class in his first year on the ballot is as certain as the perfection of the lefty's swing, which produced 3,141 hits in his 20-year big-league career -- all with the San Diego Padres. His father, Charles, passed away in 1994 and sadly missed much of it. So when Gwynn gives his acceptance speech on the stage set behind the Clark Sports Center on July 29, expect him to look toward the sky and his eyes to well up. "It's going to be hard," Gwynn said last month in a wide-ranging interview with MLB.com. "It was hard when my son got married without him. I know he's still watching. He still knows that I carry him with me. But like anything else, he wouldn't want me to dwell on the fact that he's not here anymore." Charles was dad and mentor to Tony just as Gwynn is the same to his son, Anthony Jr., who had his first taste of the Major Leagues this past season with the Milwaukee Brewers. Charles guided Gwynn and his younger brother, Chris, on their journeys to the big leagues. For Tony, through high school in Long Beach, Calif., and on to his baseball and basketball playing days at San Diego State, where he now coaches the baseball team. His older brother, Charles Jr., also played baseball, but never made it to the pros. In all his sons, Charles Sr. instilled the virtues of dedication and character, often invoking the image of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the Major Leagues when he broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. His middle son took those words to heart and excelled beyond imagination. In 1982, Gwynn was drafted by both the Padres and the then-San Diego Clippers of the NBA. He chose a career in baseball.
"He was one of my biggest fans," Gwynn said about his late dad. "When I got up to the big leagues [in 1982] he saw a lot of things that I couldn't see. He saw me doing things that I couldn't see myself doing."When the Padres made the World Series in 1984 at the end of Gwynn's first full season, one in which he led the National League with a .351 average -- his first of eight batting titles -- the two danced around the kitchen table with glee. Ten years later, as the Padres traded off high-priced stars Fred McGriff, Bruce Hurst and Gary Sheffield, his father urged his son to leave. "'You've got to go,'" said Gwynn, quoting his father in a 1999 article printed in the San Diego Union-Tribune. "'They're not trying to win down there. You deserve to win.' I said, 'But Dad, I'm happy here. This is where I was meant to be. San Diego and me, we're a perfect fit.'" Shortly thereafter, his father died of a massive heart attack. The death stunned Gwynn to his core. So much so that when a former Padres teammate, Eric Show, died later that year from a drug overdose, Gwynn couldn't find the will to attend the funeral. This past season, when Gwynn's son was called up to the Majors and debuted for the Brewers at Arizona, Gwynn was there and couldn't help but recall his own father. "I think of him a lot," the 46-year-old Gwynn said with a chuckle. "When Anthony got called up and I went to his game, I know I was proud, but he would've been cheering big time. He would've had the time of his life in Arizona, man. I hate to fly, and he hated to fly, too. We would've been in the car driving to Arizona to watch Anthony play, cutting it up and having a good old time. I'm sure he would've gotten a kick out of that, too." But on that final bit of fatherly advice, Gwynn went his own way. Despite several chances to test the free-agent market, Gwynn decided to remain in San Diego. He's the first player on the Hall of Fame ballot to play his entire career for the Padres, and he'll undoubtedly be the first pure Padre elected to the Hall. There are others in the shrine with San Diego ties: Dave Winfield, Ozzie Smith, Rollie Fingers, Gaylord Perry and Willie McCovey. But Gwynn, with his lifetime .338 average, will have the finest San Diego pedigree. "One of the things I'm proudest about is that I played for one team," Gwynn said. "My baseball card looks awesome because it has San Diego all the way down. I grew up in an environment where that kind of stuff was important. Loyalty was a small part of it. It was a matter of it being comfortable, of being in a place where I could do what I did without a lot of external pressure. This was just the place." It was 120 miles from his home and heart. A hop, skip and a jump from family. Still is. Save for the one member who will be there in spirit this coming July when Gwynn celebrates his next big day.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.