When you entered the damp and dingy crypt that was the home clubhouse at Qualcomm Stadium, Tony Gwynn’s locker was in the right-hand corner. This is where he sat daily, the greatest of all San Diego Padres, imparting his vast knowledge on hitting and other subjects that interested him.
It was early in the 1999 baseball season when, upon returning home from the Final Four in St. Petersburg, Fla., I wandered into that clubhouse to pursue a story on closer Trevor Hoffman and the huge contract extension he had just signed.
I wasn’t a foot inside the door when I heard it.
That loud, infectious, bellowing, incredible laugh.
Gwynn called me over to his locker and began digging into a stack of newspapers near it. He picked one from the middle of the pile and I immediately recognized the page.
As the college basketball writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune, I was assigned to fill out an NCAA Tournament bracket each March.
Every game. Beginning to end.
I was about to be chastised for it.
Gwynn, a terrific point guard in and around his time tearing the cover off baseballs while at San Diego State, loved every bit of the madness. He couldn’t wait for Selection Sunday each year. He ate it up.
“You know, Ed, when I first saw this, I didn’t think you would do that well with these picks,” he said between laughs.
He was right. Only one of my Final Four picks had made the semifinals. He then showed me his selections. Gwynn had advanced three of the four teams to Florida, including taking Connecticut to beat Duke in the national championship.
Just as it occurred.
“Next year,” he said, “I’ll give you some tips before your bracket comes out in the paper for everyone to see.”
There it was again. That laugh.
Some are recognized by their voices. Kelsey Grammer. Morgan Freeman. James Earl Jones. You hear just a few words and know.
Others by their laugh. Adele has a pretty distinctive one. So did Chris Farley. Gwynn had a magnificent one. Hearty. Warm. Comfortable. Welcoming.
That laugh has been silenced now, as Gwynn was taken from us Monday at the age of 54 after losing his battle with oral cancer, a Hall of Famer who couldn’t square up and crush that dreaded disease as he did so many pitches over a 20-year career with the Padres.
You can get lost in the numbers, ridiculously amazing as they were. The man struck out just 434 times in two decades. He never struck out more than 40 times in a season. Some guys do that in a month now. He had 297 career three-hit games and one career three-strikeout game.
The lifetime average, the silver bats, the Gold Gloves.
I’ll remember it as much as the laugh, the fact such an all-time great in his sport, such an iconic figure in the town where he went to college and then played his entire professional career, could be so effacing when it came to his own genius.
“The year he went into the Hall of Fame, I went to his office at San Diego State and showed him a list of the all-time votes in terms of balloting percentages for players,” said Tim Sullivan, sports columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal who worked in San Diego and covered Gwynn during his career. “And from an informal poll, I told him, I thought his percentage would be right there when the results were released. As it turned out, he had a higher one than Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Ted Williams.
“He looked at me and wondered if there was a different level for singles hitters, if they sat at a different table. Some of that might have been tongue-in-cheek, but he was never caught up in the idea that he was an immortal, that he was ever at the same level as a Mays or Hank Aaron. I’ll always remember being at a San Diego State baseball camp and looking out on the field and there he was, driving a cart around while dragging the field. Nothing was beneath him.”
I last spoke to Gwynn in late March when, while working on a story about Greg Maddux entering the Hall of Fame next month, I wanted to gather the thoughts of the hitter who had as much success against Maddux as anyone, hitting .415 in 94 at-bats with a .476 on-base percentage.
He never struck out against Maddux. Not once.
For 30 minutes, despite having taken a leave of absence as San Diego State’s baseball coach as his battle against cancer became tougher and tougher daily, Gwynn laughed and recalled several at-bats against Maddux.
He tried convincing me that most of those hits he earned were more blind luck than anything to do with his magical skill. I didn’t believe any of it and neither, apparently, would Maddux, who tweeted on Monday that Gwynn was the best pure hitter he ever faced.
Gwynn asked where I was and when informed the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in Anaheim, he said that he believed Florida would ultimately be crowned national champion.
How wonderful it would be to place a call today and tell him that come next year, I’ll be available to give him some tips on those NCAA picks.
And it would be there again, as loud and infectious and bellowing and incredible as ever.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.