Tracing The Foundation Of Mr. Padre

Tony Gwynn, Mr. Padre, and, arguably Mr. San Diego, passed away at the age of 54 on Monday. Even after retiring, he became an integral part of the community, coaching the San Diego State Aztecs. To know the player and the man, you have to return to his baseball roots.

Tony Gwynn's journey to superstardom began in a tiny town called Walla Walla. Four hours from Seattle and with a population of roughly 30,000, Walla Walla, Washington was home to a minor league baseball team.

Known more for its sweet onions and wineries, it was the catapult that lofted Gwynn's career into the next stratosphere.

"There are a lot of things that have happened over the years but being fortunate enough to have Tony Gwynn before he was really Tony Gwynn was amazing," Bill Bryk, Gwynn's first manager said.

At that time, 3,141 hits were still a lifetime away. His career .338 average was a dream. His 790-to-434 walk-to-strikeout ratio almost laughable.

"He was a special player and even more so a special person." - Bill Bryk

This Gwynn of the early 80's – a third-round pick in 1981 – hadn't even envisioned 10 stolen bases in a season, much less 56 or 319 over a lifetime.

A terrible fielder coming into Walla Walla, there was something that separated him from the rest – he worked harder than anyone at plying his trade.

"The first time I ever met him I was the All-Star manager and I had Eric Davis and Tony Gwynn on that team," former Padres manager Greg Riddoch recalled. "That was the first time I set eyes on him, and he was not a good outfielder."

"Absolutely, he is right," Gwynn laughed as he reflected back on his career, days before he would be enshrined forever in the baseball Hall of Fame. "I was. That All-Star game I had to play first base. I was the worst outfielder so they had to put me at first. He is right.

"Going into that first year I knew I had a lot of work to do. I was a terrible outfielder. I didn't throw very well. I didn't run good routes. Luckily for me, I had people who were willing to work with me and willing to come out extra to put in extra work with me."

Never satisfied, Gwynn would try anything to become a better hitter, fielder, and baserunner.

During that debut season, Gwynn switched to a lighter bat because he felt he was losing some of the balance and control he wanted in his swing. He was hitting .360 at the time.

"He was a ballplayer who was just starting to make a name for himself in his first year," Bryk said. "He was a special player and even more so a special person."

"He was a natural hitter," added Riddoch.

Gwynn looked at anything that would give him an edge. If there were a person in the stands who had advice for his game, he would listen.

Nothing was immediately tossed away. He found a friend in video as the years progressed and was able to pick up little things that most people take for granted – the double-look of a pitcher who was just doing it as a courtesy and never expecting you to actually steal was one of many things committed to memory. He would tape his at-bats before it was fashionable so he could see his own tendencies and eliminate them.

Gwynn questioned it all.

"The next time I met him again I am the outfield coach for the San Diego Padres and he is one of my outfielders," Riddoch noted. "I watched what he did everyday in spring training and thought, ‘No wonder this guy is a Gold Glover.'

"He made himself into a self-made man. When he was a rookie in the minor leagues he was not a good defensive player. He totally made himself into a great defensive player and of course everything else is history after that."

While ballplayers today rely on their talent, Gwynn saw it as a baseline for how good he could be. He never rested on his abilities. It started in Walla Walla. It continued for 20 years in the same organization. It is bronzed as he enters the Hall of Fame. Immortalized with his passing.

He will be missed for many reasons. Not only was he a great ballplayer; he was also a great person.

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