R.I.P. Mr. Padre, Tony Gwynn

 * The San Diego Padres honoured the late Mr. Padre Tony Gwynn Wednesday night in San Diego. ....  

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By Bob Elliott Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench said he was like Stradivarius with a bat.

Hall of Fame second baseman Robbie Alomar remembers him as a shoe supplier.

Hall of Fame candidate Fred McGriff credits him for introducing video replay into the game.

All of baseball remembered Tony Gwynn’s laughter, work ethic and line drive ability from foul line to foul line.

Gwynn, 54, died of oral cancer in Poway, Calif. on Monday.

The current San Diego State Aztecs, where Gwynn coached after he retired, and San Diego Padres honoured him with a moment’s silence when they returned home Wednesday night to Petco Park. Players and coaches gathered around a large No. 19 painted on the grass in right field, which was Gwynn’s number and position, observing a 19-second moment of silence.

And Gywnn’s No. 19 hung in the Padres dugout.

Mark Martinez, Gwynn’s top assistant at San Diego State, threw the ceremonial first pitch to Padres manager Buddy Black, who was a Gwynn teammate at San Diego State.

The ball field at San Diego State University is named in his honor at the insistence of the Padres owner who donated the money for its renovation.

Gwynn was selected in the third round (58th over-all) in the 1981 draft ... six picks behind scout Gary Hughes of the New York Yankees selected an outfielder named John Elway. And on the same day ... the guard from the Aztecs was drafted in the 10th round of the NBA draft.

* * * In his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 2011, Alomar thanked many in the crowd and he added “and Tony ... thank you for the shoes.” Gwynn wore custom-made shoes during his 20 seasons with the San Diego Padres and when Alomar saw them at Yuma, Az. his first spring in 1986, he asked his father, Sandy Alomar, then a coach with the Padres, if he could get an old pair from Gwynn.

“Wore them all the way through the minors,” said Alomar, which translated to 366 games for the fast riser in the San Diego system. “A lot of veteran guys would be hitting off a tee, see a rookie walk by and wouldn’t say a word.

“Not Tony. He would always offer for me to jump in with him. I was blessed to play my first three years with him. He was such a good man.”

Gwynn retired with 3,141 hits, a career .338 average (highest of any player debuting after World War II) and he won eight National League batting titles (no NL hitter won more).

Oh, and he probably had 100 millions laughs and 50 millions chuckles. (“He was always laughing, joking,” Alomar said.)

No one since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941 has made a successful run at .400. Gwynn was batting .394 when the Players Association went on strike on Aug. 11, 1994 and the season never resumed. Many players thought Gwynn could have raised his average six points in the final 45 games.

“I saw him take batting practice the same way, every day,” Alomar said, “he would pull the ball to right field, hit the ball up the middle, hit the ball down the left field line.

“He always wanted my dad to throw him batting practice. There’s good hitters and there are great hitters and Tony Gwynn was one of the greatest.”

* * * “He was Stradavarius with a bat,” said Bench. “His plate discipline was above all others the way Pete Rose’s was. He was a Gold Glover and took as much pride in defense as he did in hitting.

“His love for the game continued as he coached (San Diego State) and was willing to share his knowledge and passion. He was a true symbol of the game. A friend.”

* * * What would Gywnn hit today what with the defensive shifts? After McGriff stopped laughing he said “probably higher.”

“He was the best I ever played with, guys were hitting .210, .220 and he’s hitting .354 or whatever,” said McGriff. “Here’s how good he was. Most situations the hit and run sign comes from the third base coach. Tony and Bip Roberts, or who ever hit ahead of him, had their own set of signs ... touching a helmet, whatever.

“Bip would break and Tony was so adept with the bat he could hit the ball through the spot vacated by the infielder covering the second ... either the second baseman or shortstop. Tony that’s the kind of bat control.”

McGriff said he became a better hitter watching Gwynn and improved watching video of opposing pitchers and his own swing as Gwynn did on planes.

Gwynn was inducted him into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2007, named on 97.61% (532 of 545) of the ballots.

* * * As a coach with the Padres, Sandy Alomar often threw batting practice to Gwynn.

“I roomed with Hank Aaron, played with Frank Robinson, Tommy Davis, Rico Carty, Felipe Alou and a lot of other great hitters, I never saw any great hitter work harder,” said Sandy, who described a typical Gwynn round in the cage.

“The first few pitches he’d try to hit the back of the cage,” Sandy said.

Back of the cage? You mean try to foul off a pitch?

“Yes, he’d foul the ball a couple off to make sure he was following the ball, then he’d hit balls into the side of the cage, the corner of the cage, the left field foul seats and then he’d bring the ball around: left-centre field gap, to centre field, right-centre, right field line.”

The last five minutes he’d ask Alomar to throw anything and not to tell him what was coming.

“I had a pretty good curve -- I was younger then -- a cutter, a knuckleball,” Sandy said. “He hit everything. When I talk to younger kids I tell them about Tony Gwynn’s work ethic, how he always worked with a purpose.

“He was always watching video of pitchers on the plane, at home and at the park.”

Alomar, who played cards with Gwynn, usually Casino, as Gwynn and John Kruk munched pre-game cheese burgers, told of the batting champ sending bats, gloves and equipment to his sons, Robbie and Sandy Alomar, Jr. in the minors.

“The other Tony would do was go out to the outfield and shag -- even for the extra hitters,” said the coach. “He’d charge the ball like he was making a play in a game. At Qualcomm Park, football seats would jut out right field. No one played the carom better than Tony Gwynn.”

* * * The Sunday before the 1992 all-star game at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, the Padres had closed out the first half of the season with an 8-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies. This was six years before the Futures Game was invented to be played on the Sunday of all-star week.

And the game -- for a short time -- validated the Blue Jays-Padres trade as being one of those good deals for both clubs. Tony Fernandez and McGriff were in their second season with the Padres after being shipped west for future Hall of Famer Robbie Alomar and Joe Carter. And all four were in the game on Tuesday night.

Fernandez told me “I’ll be right back.” I interviewed Gwynn on how McGriff and Fernandez were adjusting in their second season and I spoke to McGriff and then I waited near Fernandez’s locker.

And waited.

Gwynn walked by on the way to the showers, laughed and said “Toronto right? You must be used to waiting on Tony.”

Half an hour later, Gwynn walked by again laughing harder on his way to his locker. Now 10 minutes later he was dressed when he passed by again.

“This is silly, him making you wait this long -- let me get him, no one should have to wait this long -- his answers aren’t that good,” said Gwynn, who was not laughing.

Out came Fernandez from a back room and I could hear Gwynn giggling as he left.

We recall Gwynn hugging Alomar and talking to him for a long time on the workout day: “Tony was happy I was at the game, but still upset I’d been traded,” said Alomar.

Alomar singled facing Tom Glavine and stole two bases on Tuesday night, while Carter singled twice off Glavine and knocked in a run. McGriff singled off Roger Clemens and had an RBI-single against Mark Langston, while Fernandez, the only non starter of the four, took over for Ozzie Smith and singled off Dennis Eckersley in the eighth

Combined the foursome was 6-for-11 with two RBIs as the AL beat the NL 13-6.

* * * At the 1999 all-star game at Fenway Park, the NL and AL teams were announced lining the third and first base line.

And then the introduction went like this as a golf cart emerged from the right field corner:

“Ladies and gentlemen the greatest living hitter ...”

And the rest of the announcement was drowned out by Fenway fans as Ted Williams, then 81, rode to the pitcher’s mound.

There, his pal Gwynn steadied him as he threw out the first pitch.

Gwynn later called it one of the greatest thrills of his career -- to be standing alone on the mound with Williams as he fired a strike to Red Sox hero Carlton Fisk.

* * * Gwynn was inducted in 2007 and through his agent John Boggs it was set up that he would give me a call. He’d flown from San Diego to New York to see his son and would call at 5 PM.

The phone rang at 5:10 and his first words were: “I’m sorry I’m late, but we were a few minutes late landing in Albany ... how can I help you,”

On the Saturday we ran into Gwynn signing autographs and he’d been talking to talented San Diego scribe Chris Jenkins. The nicest manin baseball was angry.

The Hall of Famers had been teasing him since the moment he arrived.

Calling him a slap hitter, Mr. Singles, and knocking his body.

Gwynn did not know how much longer he could take this ribbing from the greats of the game.

Well, it turned out after the induction ceremonies and the Hall of Famers returned to the Otsego Hotel for their members only diner it was all a gag ... mild hazing.

Those who had teased him the most had the nicest things to say.

He’d been welcomed to the most exclusive Hall of Fame on earth.

* * * When the Padres reached the 1998 World Series against the New York Yankees there was enough funding to build Petco Park.

Outside the new yard on Tony Gwynn Drive is a huge statue of Gywnn swinging the bat. The left-handed hitter is driving a  ball between the third base and shortstop. The 5.5 hole, which he had written on the tongue of his spikes.

Gwynn’s 19 consecutive seasons batting over .300 is bested only by Ty Cobb and his baseabll-reference page now reads:

Tony Gwynn 1960-2014

You were a better person than you were a hitter and you were the best hitter this generation has seen. San Diego will miss you dearly, Mr. Padre. Thank you for the memories.