Baseball great Tony Gwynn, the man known in San Diego as "Mr. Padre" and known nationally as one of the greatest hitters of all time, died Monday after a lengthy battle with cancer.
Local fans gathered at Petco Park after hearing the news and honored the 54-year-old Hall of Fame outfielder with a makeshift memorial near a statue erected to mark his 20-year career as a member of the Padres.
"We're crushed", said Summer Serrano who met the baseball legend when she was just 16. "I'm so honored and proud to be able to call Tony my friend."
Major League Baseball tweeted the news Monday morning that Gwynn had died at age 54. The official San Diego Padres account soon followed: "We are terribly sad to say goodbye to our teammate, our friend and a legend, Tony Gwynn. Rest in peace, Mr. Padre."
The famed slugger and Hall of Fame inductee led the Padres to their only World Series appearances and racked up numerous awards for his hitting prowess before retiring in 2001. Gwynn continued his commitment to the San Diego sports community after his own professional career ended, joining his alma mater San Diego State University as head baseball coach.
"I played for one team, I played in one town,” he said in his acceptance speech as he was admitted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
San Diegans expressed thanks for that commitment Monday.
NBC 7 sports producer and photojournalist Dave Smith - whose own professional career paralleled Gwynn's - said so many San Diegans hold a special place for Gwynn in their hearts because he embraced the city and stayed when he could have followed the money and played elsewhere.
"Probably one of the most fun and remarkable things about him when you did have a chance to be around him, he loved to sit and tell stories,” Smith said recalling the many times he was able to chat with the baseball legend.
“He had a laugh - just one of the most infectious laughs you can imagine.”
A Baseball Legend
Gwynn, who played played 2,440 games, led the National League in batting eight times, compiling a .338 career batting average that was the 18th best in baseball history. He led the team to their only two World Series appearances in 1984 and 1998.
He was named to 15 All-Star teams, winning seven Silver Slugger Awards as the best hitter at his position and five Gold Glove Awards as the best fielder at his position. Those accomplishments led the team to retire his No. 19 in 2004. In 2007, he secured a spot in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 2003, Gwynn was hired as the head baseball coach at San Diego State University, returning to the university where he had excelled as a student in both basketball and baseball.
In March, he took a leave of absence from the team. They went on to win the Mountain West Conference championship this season with a bobblehead of their coach sitting in the dugout for inspiration.
“Mr. Padre, Mr. Aztec, two-sport athlete here at SDSU. He very well could be Mr. San Diego,” said Bob Moosbrugger, SDSU associate athletic director for development.
“There is going to be a lot of memories coming out in the next few weeks about Tony. He meant so much to this community. Not just to SDSU but to the community as a whole,” he said.
The Hall of Fame outfielder, who battled cancer of the salivary gland for years, was in pro baseball at a time when many players chewed tobacco and little was known about the effects. Gwynn would later talk about the habit, admitting to reporters that he often tried to quit chewing since he had first started in high school.
He said that he thought it was a bad example for kids and encouraged others not to do it.
He had growths operated on in 1997 and again 2000 but no cancer was discovered. Even after a previous surgery in 2010 to remove a malignant tumor, there was little change in his appearance.
However, it was the most recent surgery in February 2012 that noticeably changed his appearance and speech. During the operation, surgeons removed a tumor inside his right cheek and grafted a nerve from his shoulder to replace the nerve damaged by the tumor.
At the time he spoke openly about the prognosis with NBC 7.
Experts have linked the use of chewing tobacco and snuff to cancer in the cheek, gums, and lips.
Simply the Best
NBC 7 users are sharing their favorite memories of Gwynn on Facebook.
"You can't share a favorite moment about Tony because their are so many stories to tell . He gave so much to SD and was loyal beyond belief . The best pure hitter we will ever see," NBC 7 user Tracy Gilber posted.
Edward Hendrickson posted his reaction, "Stunned. Great baseball player and even better man. Mr. Padres will be missed."
Rene Kuenning-Bass had trouble explaining what the news meant: "I grew up watching Tony play at The Murph with my family. I lost my dad in an accident 17 years ago and since then everytime I watched Tony play it tied me to my dad and the memories I had with him."
Many consider Gwynn one of baseball's greatest players.
“He’s the greatest athlete in the human race,” said NBC 7 Sports Director Jim Laslavic who added how Gwynn would laugh at criticism during his playing days.
“He could light up the stadium with a smile,” he said. “Just a terrific person, a wonderful guy.
NBC 7's Whitney Southwick, a longtime San Diegan, remembers Gwynn's smile.
"It lit up the room and made you and everyone else just feel better about life – everything," Southwick said. "And what he could do on the diamond – a natural hitter who worked so hard at being even better, at the plate and in the field. TG is priceless, a one-of-a-kind person who was so much more than a professional baseball player."
Baseball fan and civic leader George Mitrovich said no other news will matter in San Diego today.
"Life is unfair and often cruel," he adds. "Which is underscored by our town having lost this year our two most beloved sports figures ever – Jerry Coleman and now, Tony Gwynn.
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