Editor’s note: Mike Downey is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a frequent contributor to CNN.
(CNN) – They come in all sizes and shapes, athletes do, small and tall, round and lean. They come with all kinds of personalities as well. Some are cheerful as a cheerleader and sunny as a summer’s morn. They do more than just impress you, on the field or off; they delight you.
Precious few have been the equal of Tony Gwynn, when it comes to a combination of superhuman prowess plus an everyman’s way of coming across not as someone to idolize but more like your drop-by-for-coffee neighbor next door. When he died Monday, cut down at 54 by a mouth cancer that spread, Major League Baseball mourned.
The statistics of Anthony Keith Gwynn are so off-the-chart absurd, they almost make a baseball lover laugh out loud: In the 20 seasons he played (all for the same team, the San Diego Padres), he did not slug home runs the way Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds did; on the contrary, a mere 135 homers in all that time? Ha, you would think this Gwynn must have been a 98-pound weakling, rather than the chubby-cheeked, tubby-tummied specimen that he was.
What he did do was hit the ball.
In his two decades, in 9,288 official at-bats, Gwynn struck out a grand total of 434 times. A pitcher couldn’t get a pitch by him. It was the old “like trying to throw a lamb chop past a wolf” kind of joke. You chucked it, Tony Gwynn knocked it. A single to left, to center, to right, wherever he darn well pleased. He looked like a slow-pitch softball batter who decided to poke a ball anywhere he liked. Except he did this against young, rock-abbed, iron-armed men who could hurl a hardball between 90 and 100 mph.
Gwynn’s lifetime tally of 3,141 hits exceeded that of, among others, Rod Carew, Al Kaline, Roberto Clemente, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.
His career batting average of .338 was the kind kids fantasize about when they are up-and-comers, watching videos of themselves, trying to learn how to hit.
The ballpark figures this Hall of Famer etched into the game’s record books are exceptional. Yet there was so much more to Gwynn: a perpetually happy and humble human being.
A couple of examples, just to get the ball rolling:
The year was 1984 and the San Diego Padres had made it to the World Series at last. Game 1 was about to be played there in southernmost Southern California, in a town known far more for its beauty than its baseball. Tony Gwynn sat in a dugout, taking on all comers, talking to teammates, reporters, TV cameramen, vendors and batboys.
“Don’t you just love baseball?” Gwynn asked at one point of no one in particular.
Gwynn and the Padres were expected by many to lose to the Detroit Tigers, a very strong team that year.
“If we do lose,” Tony the non-Tiger said, “hooray for the Tigers. Somebody’s going to win, so if it can’t be us, hooray for them.”
Don’t you just love that? The lack of intensity, solemnity, fear that his observation would be interpreted in some negative way? Kirk Gibson, star of the opposing team, was the kind of guy who would have stared daggers at a teammate who fraternized with the enemy. Gwynn sought them out, trying to find Tigers before the game, eager as a frisky puppy to make friends and then go play.
He had a brother, Chris, who got to play on his team. In 1996, the Padres were up north in Tony’s birthplace of Los Angeles for a big game. It was decided on a clutch 11th-inning double by a pinch-hitter – yep, Chris Gwynn, the lesser of the Gwynn brothers and it won the division championship for the Padres.
“Aren’t you Chris Gwynn’s brother?” a reporter joked.
“I am today!” Tony exulted.
He loved his brother. He loved pretty much everybody.
Including his own son, Tony Gwynn Jr., who also made it to the major leagues. Brother and son might not have been in Tony’s league (as it were), but those Gwynns, they could play this game.
Tony Jr. was succinct and sincere on Twitter when the bad news came Monday: “Today I lost my Dad, my best friend and my mentor. I’m gonna miss u so much, pops.”
Tony Sr. had a cherubic face and a soft and nasal voice, a little bit Walter Payton, a little bit Wayne Newton. He had the torso of a nonathlete and his cheeks were puffed by smokeless tobacco, a habit that likely killed him. He endured oral surgery in 2010 and again in 2012, and there had been a growing dread that his days were numbered.
Tony Gwynn is gone? Say it ain’t so.
He didn’t play for New York or St. Louis or San Francisco. He played against them. But he played for all of us, watching him with that bat, waggling it, digging in, smacking a ball where it couldn’t be caught. He would smile, patting the other side’s fielder on the back, while the rest of us turned to each other, shook our heads and said something like, “Man, that guy can hit.”