Gwynn a survivor in every sense of the word
After overcoming cancer, Hall of Famer glad to be on his feet
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- It's been a tough year for Tony Gwynn, who is a survivor in any sense of the term. Gwynn is a two-time cancer survivor who overcame 14 hours of surgery only five months ago to remove a malignant tumor from inside his right cheek. And he's a survivor to be back on his feet as part of the game he adores so much.On Friday, Gwynn returned as a fan and member to the National Baseball Hall of Fame he dearly loves. Gwynn has come back to Upstate New York for the induction ceremonies almost every summer since the man they call Mr. Padre and Cal Ripken Jr. were elected in 2007. The one year he missed was because of a stomach bypass procedure in his quest to lose weight. The cancer then hit twice like thunderbolts to his parotid gland, and it seems like he's been on the long road from surgery to recovery ever since.
"It's been tedious at times," Gwynn told MLB.com after a Hall of Fame event he helped host on Friday. "I've gotten to the point where I already went through this once, and I just want to get through it now and move on. That's the way I'm looking at it. I've gotten through the surgery part of it. I've gotten through the rehab. Now I'm just trying to live my life the way I used to. I'm slowly but surely getting back to that, and right now I'm doing good."Gwynn is the head baseball coach at San Diego State, his alma mater where he played before his selection by the Padres in the third round of the 1981 First-Year Player Draft. Life began anew this spring when he jumped back in the dugout and began coaching his team. On July 5, he rejoined his Padres TV partners and began analyzing games again, now for the team's new regional sports network. He recently attached his name to a group trying to purchase the Padres from John Moores, but that group, headed by Hollywood filmmaker Thomas Tull, has dropped out of the running. Gwynn attended the All-Star Game festivities in Kansas City and on Friday he did a short speech as the U.S. Postal Service commemorated postage stamps in honor of Larry Doby, Willie Stargell, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio in the Museum's famous Grandstand Theater. They are "Forever" stamps, honoring the four Hall of Famers -- just like the plaques in the gallery represent Gwynn and 206 other players. "I hope one day they will consider me worthy enough to put on a stamp," he said. "But believe me, I'm just happy to be standing here right now." It was just this past Feb. 15 that Gwynn had that second tumor removed. It was wrapped around a nerve that controls movement on that side of his face. The first time, doctors hesitated to take the nerve, fearing permanent paralysis if they did. Instead, they opted for months of aggressive radiation and chemotherapy that left burns on Gwynn's neck and face. That tact worked for awhile, but ultimately failed.
This time, Gwynn insisted that the growth be totally eradicated. Doctors transplanted another nerve from Gwynn's right shoulder, hoping to limit the damage. The procedure took 14 hours and began in the early morning hours. Gwynn, obviously, wasn't aware of the length of the surgery until he finally awoke in recovery at 4:30 a.m. the next day.The eight-time National League batting champ, who finished his career with a .338 lifetime batting average and 3,141 hits, was the happiest man in the world as he arose from an anesthetic haze. Not only was he alive, but he could talk. "The whole experience was traumatic because I thought I had it beat, and dang, it came back," said Gwynn, whose lifetime average is the highest since Williams retired at .344 in 1960. "I can't say enough how fortunate I feel to be here after 14 hours of surgery. I remember waking up and just smiling and laughing because I wasn't sure I was going to wake up. Everything after that's a plus. That's how I'm looking at it. We've always tried to attack it positively, and that's what we did this time. Hopefully I'll beat it, but we'll see." Gwynn's cheek is still a bit stiff, but unlike the first go-around, this time he didn't have to regain his facility to talk clearly. He underwent therapy to regain full use of the shoulder. He'd like to one day regularly throw batting practice to his college players, but then, it's all about taking one step at a time. In the end, Gwynn seemed to think better about having his visage honored one day on a postage stamp. Gwynn will always have his plaque, but he certainly looked wistfully at the billboard with the swings of the Hall of Famers all painted on fields of green. "It would be nice one day," he said with his characteristic Gwynn chuckle. "But I enjoy living more."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.