Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 11, 51s outfielder Cory Vaughn long ago became adept at dealing with adversity. But Saturday was an especially draining day emotionally for the former San Diego State star.
Vaughn, son of former All-Star slugger Greg Vaughn, attended a private memorial service for Tony Gwynn, his former Aztecs coach, in the morning at his alma mater before driving back to Las Vegas in time to get two hits in the 51s’ 11-5 win over Memphis at Cashman Field.
Standing in center field before the night game, Vaughn became choked up as the team paid tribute to Gwynn, who hit .342 in 17 games for the Las Vegas Stars during a 1983 rehab assignment for the San Diego Padres.
“I almost started crying when they did the tribute about Coach Gwynn up on the scoreboard,” he said. “They did it a couple days ago, but it didn’t hit me hard. But seeing him in the casket (Saturday) and then seeing it again was brutal.
“I was trying to get my mind right for the game and block it out, but it was pretty tough. It was just a long day.”
The moving memorial for Gwynn — who died Monday at age 54 after a long battle with oral cancer — was attended by about 200 close family members and friends, including fellow Baseball Hall of Famers Rod Carew, Cal Ripken, Ozzie Smith and Dave Winfield.
“He was a great baseball player, but he was an even better person, so it was just rough to see him go this early,” Vaughn said. “Seeing his wife, (his son) Tony Gwynn Jr. and his daughter, it was real sad. Their pain, I couldn’t even imagine what they felt like.”
Vaughn, who played three seasons under Gwynn at San Diego State, fondly recalls him hosting team barbecues at his house, where he and his wife Alicia would cook for the players.
“He was a loving, caring, generous person. You could talk to him about anything. He was always there for you,” Vaughn said. “He was honestly one of the greatest people I’ve ever met.”
Batting .295 with two home runs and nine RBIs in 17 games for the 51s since he was called up from Double-A Binghamton, Vaughn counts Gwynn and his father as his biggest baseball influences.
“Between (Gwynn) and my pops, they really made me the player I am today,” he said. “(Gwynn) taught me how to be a professional on and off the field and my approach at the plate, not always trying to pull the ball.”
A fourth-round draft pick of the Mets in 2010, the 25-year-old Vaughn hit 14 homers in 72 games that year for Single-A Brooklyn under 51s manager Wally Backman and had 23 homers in 2012 for Single-A St. Lucie.
“He’s got a lot of thunder in that bat,” Backman said. “He does everything well. He runs well, he’s a good outfielder with a strong arm, and he’s got power. It’s like getting a five-tool guy.”
At 6 feet 3 inches tall, Vaughn is three inches taller than his father — who hit 50 of his 355 career homers in 1998 to help lead the Padres to the World Series — but is a different type of player.
“I feel like it’s kind of hard to be like my pops, because he was stronger than about 95 percent of the big-leaguers that played,” he said. “He was like Bamm Bamm. Just pick up that club and swing it. I don’t even try to compare myself to him.
“My strength coach back home calls me ‘The Hybrid’ because I can run, hit with some pop and steal some bags.”
Vaughn always slides on his right side because he plays with an insulin pump in his back left pocket that regulates his blood sugar. The pump, which is the size of a garage door opener, supplies insulin to Vaughn through a catheter attached to his glute.
“I wear the pump all the time,” Vaughn said. “It pumps insulin into me whenever I need it, so I don’t have to take shots. It’s easier when I travel and stuff.”
In Type 1 diabetes — previously known as juvenile diabetes — the body does not produce insulin, which is a hormone that’s needed to convert sugar, starches and other food into energy needed for daily life, according to the American Diabetes Association.
When Vaughn was diagnosed with the disease at age 11, after losing 20 pounds in a month — weight loss is one of the symptoms of Type 1 diabetes — he was terrified.
“I thought it was the end of the world. I thought I was gonna die, in the hospital connected to IVs,” he said. “I was just scared, but doctors told me if I could control it and handle it the right way and be responsible, everything would be fine. From there on out everything has been perfect.”
Initially tasked with injecting himself manually many times a day, Vaughn said he matured quickly.
“That was when I considered I became a man,” he said. “I had to take care of myself in that aspect.”
Aside from one scary episode in Brooklyn, when he was removed from a game and had to be treated by paramedics in the clubhouse, Vaughn hasn’t let the disease slow him down.
“It hasn’t stopped me,” said Vaughn, who has worn a pump since he was 13. “Everyone I talk to who has diabetes says, ‘Don’t let it stop you from achieving what you want to do in life.’ ”
Many diabetics have excelled in professional sports — including former Chicago Cubs third baseman Ron Santo, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, Hockey Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke and 51s pitcher Buddy Carlyle — and Vaughn is determined to join that group.
“I just stay on top of it because I feel, in my eyes, if I don’t make it to the big leagues, it will be because of diabetes and I’m gonna make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.
After struggling this season in Double-A, where he hit only .190 with three homers and 10 RBIs in 50 games, Vaughn has started strong for Las Vegas.
“In Binghamton, I was just pressing a little bit,” said Vaughn, who struck out as a pinch hitter in Sunday’s 7-5, 11-inning home loss to Memphis. “I love playing for Wally. He has that fire, and he brings the fire out of you.”
Heeding Gwynn’s advice, Vaughn said he isn’t trying to hit more homers.
“Like Coach Gwynn always used to tell me, just play ball and whatever’s gonna happen is gonna happen,” he said. “Because the more you try to do stuff, the less it happens.”
■ NOTES — Matt Reynolds and Josh Satin each had three hits for the 51s (45-32), who erased a 5-1 deficit before seeing their five-game win streak end. ... Randal Grichuk lined a two-run double off Zach Thornton (1-3) in the 11th.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.