Tony Gwynn Was the True Model Athlete

The news of the passing of Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn caught everyone by surprise.

“Are you serious? Oh my God!” Barry Bonds, baseball’s all-time home run leader, told USA TODAY Sports. “You’re kidding, right?

“He’s one of my favorite people in the world.”

Gwynn had a four-year bout with cancer of the salivary gland since 2010 and it hurt people around him the most because it affected one of the attributes that made him truly special, his smile.

Gwynn’s passing reminded everyone how special he was not just as a hitter — the second greatest hitter in baseball history next to Ted Williams — but also as a person.

He was San Diego’s humble superstar, but unlike today’s players who self-describe themselves as “humble” yet apparently believe a prerequisite of being humble is to put your head down and be silent and boring, he was gracious with everyone. By everyone, I mean media, fans, old players, young players, good players, garbage players, everyone. He talked to everyone and when he talked to you, it was always an insightful conversation. As long as you were interested in baseball and hitting (and if you had the chance to meet Gwynn, what else would you talk about?) he was interested in talking to you. Can you name a baseball star who would actually be interested in what you or anyone would have to say or ask? There aren’t that many.

If you were to watch ESPN or MLB Network on Monday, the universal impression of the late Tony Gwynn was “I wish my favorite player was like him.” Look no further than “America’s First Baseman” Paul Goldschmidt of your Arizona Diamondbacks. Ever since he joined the show in time for Arizona’s playoff run in 2011, he’s been an efficient hitting machine. Single-A Visalia manager Robby Hammock played with Goldschmidt in 2011 and declared him as “the perfect player for any manager in any sport”. But the guy has the personality of a British Royal Guard. You couldn’t have a productive conversation about hitting with him because he’d be to modest and embarrassed to say anything about his abilities and accolades and wouldn’t be able to avoid cliches. That’s what separated Gwynn from everyone else.

The San Diego Padres were founded in 1969 but didn’t see success before Gwynn. He started his career in 1982 and led the team to their first postseason appearance and World Series appearance in 1984. They lost to Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson’s Detroit Tigers back then and lost the New York Yankees in the 1998 World Series.

After his playing career, Gwynn returned to his alma mater to coach baseball at San Diego State University. Imagine playing for him; an extremely rare opportunity in college baseball. Diamondbacks closer Addison Reed played for Gwynn’s Aztecs from 2008 to 2010 and like everyone else in baseball, he remembers him fondly and was surprised and saddened to hear the sobering news.

“It was a shock,” Reed told “I knew he was kind of not doing too well, but I didn’t think it was that bad. You’d never know if you talked to him, if you saw expressions on his face, he didn’t show that he was hurt or anything.

“He wanted everybody to be happy and not worry, and that’s exactly what he did. He left a great legacy behind, and he’s going to be missed.”

As Reed revealed, Gwynn’s baseball wisdom wasn’t exclusively reserved to hitters. His guidance was there for anyone who was willing, including pitchers.

“I wasn’t a hitter in college,” Reed said, “but that didn’t stop him from trying to help me … try to become the best person I could be, not only on the field but off the field,” Reed said. “He taught me how to be a professional and just more than [a player].”

Everyone will tell you how wonderful of a player and person Tony Gwynn was, but what they’ll likely forget and should include is his downfall. Gwynn died from mouth cancer that was caused from using smokeless tobacco throughout his career — a common baseball habit that Gwynn told ESPN in 2010,that probably gave him cancer.

Chewing tobacco is very common in the baseball culture. I used to joke with many of my friends on the Arizona Wildcats baseball team that best way to get the top recruits was to have the best dip. I was close with the 2010 freshman class and it was very prevalent within that group.

It starts from the top down. Look at some of the big league stars. Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia has the look of a psycho and always appear to have dip in his lip. And he’s just an example. It’s very prevalent.

But it wasn’t until 2011 that MLB implemented rules related to smokeless tobacco products. MLB collaborated with the Major League Baseball Players Association to prohibit teams from providing tobacco to players and players from having tobacco tins in their uniforms or using chewing tobacco during public moments like interviews.

Players use it because it’s a stimulant that is either used to relax them or give them the necessary added edge during the game. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chewing tobacco contain 28 carcinogens and is a known cause of oral cancer.

It doesn’t happen often, but it got Gwynn, and even though he fought hard for four years and it look like there was hope at one point, cancer came back and took over. We should all remember Tony Gwynn for the man he was, but also learn why he’s gone and how we can prevent another person from losing his life by the hands of a nasty habit.


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