Tony Gwynn had no real connection to the college football world. It was the only of the big three sports he didn’t play at San Diego State, in fact. But Gwynn embodied an attitude both on and off the baseball diamond and basketball court athletes from every sport can benefit from following.
This site operates out of the greater San Diego area, where Gwynn’s aura overshadows that of an other athlete who played here in any sport. The closest comparison locally is Junior Seau, who attended CIF San Diego Section powerhouse Oceanside High School before starring for the San Diego Chargers.
Gwynn may mean more to the entire San Diego athletic scene than any one athlete in any city in America. It’s a bold proclamation: Boston has Bill Russell, Wade Boggs, Ted Williams and Bobby Orr; Chicago was home to Michael Jordan, Dick Butkus and Ernie Banks; Los Angeles has seen Magic Johnson, Jerry West and Sandy Koufax come through and Babe Ruth, Derek Jeter and Reggie Jackson all starred on Broadway.
But all these cities featured multiple icons, some from the same franchise. Few spent their amateur years in the city’s where they became professionals.
Indeed, in San Diego it’s either Gwynn or Seau. But unlike Seau, Tony Gwynn spent his entire playing in San Diego, from college through the professional ranks. His exploits as a two-sport star at San Diego State are well documented. He and Michael Cage were long regarded as the program’s all-time best, only recently being surpassed by NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
Of course, Gwynn is recognized more for his play with the San Diego Padres, and rightly so. Gwynn is one of the greatest hitters in baseball history and at one time, as exciting a defensive outfielder as there was in the game.
The phrase “play the game the right way” has been co-opted by #HotTake pundits and now carries a negative connotation. It’s more a derisive, if not loaded way of back-handing certain athletes.
Tony Gwynn played the game the right way in a 100 percent pure fashion. He went all-out regardless of circumstance and adapted his game to the situation. Gwynn is among those transcendent athletes who started his career playing in one manner, then evolved to play completely differently albeit just as effectively in his latter years.
That’s the same kind of mindset evident in college football stars like Anthony Barr, who excelled at linebacker after switching over from running back, or Collin Klein, a one-time defensive end-turned-tight end who became a Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback.
His ability and tenacious style commanded universal respect. There are countless examples from his peers in the baseball world, but one of personal significance is my own father. A lifelong Cubs fan, he watched Gwynn take down the best Chicago team of his lifetime in 1984, but my dad could not root against him.
Beyond his play, Gwynn also gave back to the San Diego community at large in a way that directly supports the ideals of “playing the game the right.” His charitable organization, the Tony and Alicia Gwynn Foundation, supports youth athletic and exercise programs.
And of course, Gwynn gave back to his alma mater, San Diego State.
San Diego State has long been a sleeping giant in all sports. Tony Gwynn gave Aztec baseball the boost it needed to begin meeting its potential as the program’s manager up to his passing.
Rising tide lifts all ships, and San Diego State basketball has become a perennial NCAA tournament program. The football Aztecs have made four consecutive bowl games and look like legitimate contenders to the Mountain West championship in 2014.
The entirety of the San Diego sports community now has a tremendous void to fill. Tony Gwynn set a standard that few will ever meet here. But that many will try is a wonderful thing, and a lasting legacy he’ll have for decades to come.