MLB

‘Coach Gwynn was a father figure to me:' Remembering Tony Gwynn a decade after his passing

The world lost a legend 10 years ago but his memory lives on in the lives he touched

On June 16, 2014, Tony Gwynn passed away. A decade later, we still marvel at his mind-blowing statistics. Career .338 batting average, more walks than strikeouts, member of the 3,000 hit club, 1st-ballot Hall of Famer. Talking about his exploits on the field is easy. He was, and still is, one of the greatest hitters in baseball history.

Time has lent perspective on just how good he was with a bat in his hands but his prowess in the batter's box was never up for debate. What has truly come to light over the last 10 years is the impact he had on people. Tony Gwynn was the best part of all of us. He was a leader, a mentor, a friend. This is just one example of how his life well lived is still inspiring people today.

When Brock Ungricht was in the minor leagues he had a guy he could call for advice on being a pro ballplayer. That guy was not a bad resource to have. Ungricht played for Mr. Padre at San Diego State and was good enough to be drafted by the Yankees. Any time he hit a rough patch he knew just who to dial up, knowing his former head coach would be available.

"All the time. He always picked up the phone and it would go back to the same thing: are you seeing the baseball?" says Ungricht. "Are you seeing the baseball or are you just swinging? How's your pitch selection? Are you balanced? And hearing those questions would just be like, okay, that's all I need. That's all I need, just to hear his voice to be able to get going. It's something I'll never forget."

Brock eventually realized his baseball journey was leading him down a different path, one that started back in a corner under the stands at SDSU's Tony Gwynn Stadium.

"The best thing by far, which inspired me to coach, along with my dad, is he always loved having people in his office. Playing for him, he always encouraged guys to go talk to him, come watch video, come hang out. So I did," says Ungricht. "We would just talk baseball and he would laugh. He had that smile and that laugh. He created that environment, that culture for guys that love baseball, that love to just learn the game. And it was awesome."

He didn't realize it at the time but those trips to Tony's office planted a seed that he also wanted to impact young lives as a baseball coach. Guess who gave him that chance?

"He offered me my first coaching job and gave me that opportunity to get into college baseball," says Ungright. "The impact that he had on players individually and as a group really stood out to me and I was like, God, that would be so awesome to be a coach one day, to have that same impact, to be able to pass along that knowledge, pay it forward to kids today to help them achieve their dreams.

"Coach Gwynn was a father figure to me."

A few years later Brock took over as the head coach at USD. On the wall directly behind his desk is a signed Tony Gwynn jersey. It's there for a reason: so Ungricht can feel Tony's presence watching, making sure he's doing everything the right way.

The Tony Way. And it starts with one very simple but powerful tenet.

"Treat people right. It starts there. You know, treat people how you want to be treated. I can't say enough how much the guy talked about that. And, man, he had total total respect for anyone he came across, anyone he spoke to," says Ungricht. "If you can start there, you're going to treat people right as a coach. You're going to treat people right as a teammate. You're going to treat people right wherever you go in life."

On his desk he also keeps a copy of Gwynn's batting bible, "The Art of Hitting." Players today, guys who are too young to have ever seen Mr. Padre take an at-bat, will pick it up and read a passage, often trying to implement the gospel in their next batting practice session.

"I know he's always looking over us. He's always looking over my shoulder every day. And it's really cool to see the guys kind of carry on his legacy," says Ungricht.

The lessons obviously still work. The Toreros won a pair of West Coast Conference titles this year and have been to the NCAA Tournament twice in the last three seasons. Oh, and as one more reminder of the special relationship Coach Gwynn had with his guys, I asked Brock if he still has Tony's number saved in his phone contacts.

"100%. I'm never deleting it. Never deleting it."

RIP #19. And thank you.

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