For most professional sports franchises, there’s at least some debate as to who the team’s greatest player of all-time was — the face of the franchise, so to speak.
When discussing a team such as the New York Yankees, for instance, you have to consider names like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Derek Jeter.
Meanwhile, in the NBA, you’ve got the likes of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West for the Los Angeles Lakers and Bill Russell, Larry Bird, John Havlicek, Bob Cousy and Kevin McHale for the Boston Celtics.
But when it comes to the San Diego Padres, there is only one “Mr. Padre.”
Hall of Fame right fielder Tony Gwynn, who spent his entire 20-year Major League Baseball career with the Padres, died of cancer on Monday at the age of 54, sending a jolt to the heart of many baseball aficionados, including yours truly.
And while I didn’t start following baseball closely until the latter portion of Gwynn’s career, which lasted from 1982-2001, I saw enough to convince me that he is among the greatest hitters the game has ever seen.
Not only that, but the five-time National League Gold Glove Award winner was also a skilled defender and an exceptional person in all phases of life. Given his infectious smile and his cheerful personality, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who had a problem with the man.
On the field, however, there were plenty of opposing pitchers who had a problem with Gwynn — including former Atlanta Braves starters Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, who were catalysts for the club’s domination of the National League in the 1990s.
As a matter of fact, domination is an appropriate term to use when describing what Gwynn did to Atlanta’s trio. Gwynn hit .444 against Smoltz and struck out just once in 75 at-bats against a guy who totaled 3,084 strikeouts (16th all-time), while he batted .415 with no strikeouts in 107 at-bats against Maddux and .303 with two strikeouts in 105 at-bats against Glavine.
Furthermore, the left-handed hitting Gwynn recorded more hits off Maddux and Smoltz than anyone else — totaling 39 hits against Maddux and 32 against Smoltz — and he also tied Barry Bonds for the third-most hits off Glavine (30).
As if those numbers aren’t eye-popping enough, Gwynn also compiled a .338 career batting average (the highest of any player to start his career after World War II) to go with 3,141 hits (including 2,378 singles, 543 doubles, 135 home runs and 85 triples) and 1,138 RBIs, and he was also the last player to come close to hitting .400 (Gwynn was hitting .394 when the 1994 season was halted due to a strike in August of that year). In addition, he walked 790 times while striking out just 434 times in 9,288 career at-bats.
Let’s explore that last number just a little further: with 434 strikeouts in 20 seasons, that means Gwynn averaged only 21.7 Ks a season, including six years of 20 or less in which he qualified for the batting title (Gwynn won a record eight NL batting titles, which is tied with fellow Hall of Famer Honus Wagner for the second-most all-time in either league).
Compare those statistics to those of modern-day ballplayers and it becomes downright laughable just how great a hitter Gwynn truly was, as 149 players had already totaled 40 or more strikeouts this season entering Tuesday night (Gwynn’s career high was 40 in 1988).
I could honestly go on and on about Gwynn’s individual accomplishments during his playing days, which also include 15 appearances (11 starts) in the All-Star Game, seven Silver Slugger Awards, the 1999 Roberto Clemente Award (which is given to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team”) and having his No. 19 jersey retired by the Padres in 2002.
Still, despite all of his achievements throughout his big-league career, Gwynn also experienced success after he retired, including as the head coach of the baseball team at his alma mater, San Diego State University, for the past 12 years. During that time, he led the Aztecs to a 363-363 record, three Mountain West Conference championships (2004, 2013, 2014) and three appearances in the NCAA Tournament (2009, 2013, 2014).
Gwynn, who starred in both baseball and basketball at San Diego State, also tried his hand at broadcasting in recent years. He did game and studio analysis for ESPN and helped with some postseason games on TBS, and he also served as an expert analyst for Yahoo! Sports.
In addition, he continued to be an incredible husband and father to his wife, Alicia Gwynn, and their two children, R&B artist Anisha Nicole and Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr.
So what else is there for me to say?
Thank you, Mr. Gwynn, for all the great memories. You have nothing but my utmost respect. In a day and age in which so many have cheated the game, you did things the right way. You were a hero to many, and your legacy will live on forever.