With news of Tony Gwynn‘s successful cheek surgery to remove a cancerous tumor and hopefully eradicate any remnants of the disease from his body, it seemed fitting to continue our series on the Padres history. We’re skipping ahead from 1978 to 1982, the year San Diego was introduced to a man they would all grow to love and adore as a friend, a family member, and a Hall of Fame right fielder.
Gwynn was born in Los Angeles, California, but he attended San Diego State University. Gwynn’s journey south to San Diego did not come on the heels of his baseball skills. Instead, he was recruited heavily as a point guard for the basketball team. In fact, Gwynn did not play baseball at all during his freshman year of 1977. He chose to focus on basketball, which wasn’t a bad plan. Gwynn left San Diego State as the all-time assists leader in their men’s basketball program history, but he had also proven himself as a star-caliber baseball player.
In 1979, his first full year of play with the Aztecs baseball team, Gwynn hit .423 and received third team All-America honors. In 1980, he hit .416 and was honored as a first-team All-American by the NCAA. He was also given the honor as an all-WAC (Western Athletic Conference) outfielder. The San Diego State Aztecs website offers a glimpse into just how talented Gwynn was in basketball and baseball.
One of Gwynn’s legendary feats came during his final season at San Diego State. On Saturday, March 7, 1981, he concluded the basketball season with a 16-point, 16-assist performance at home against New Mexico. Two days later (Monday, March 9), he was on the baseball field for a doubleheader against Southern California College. In that twin bill, he went 3-for-7 with a double, three runs scored, five RBI and a stolen base. He recorded game-winning RBIs in both contests.
In June of 1981, the future of the Padres franchise changed forever. In fact, the future of San Diego changed forever. With the 58th overall pick, Tony Gwynn was selected by San Diego. He was a third round pick in a draft that included players like Joe Carter, David Cone, Paul O’Neil, and Mark Grant – a former Padre himself. Mark Grant, who was recently signed to be one of the Padres television analysts with the new Fox Sports San Diego channel, can forever say he was drafted ahead of Tony Gwynn.
Gwynn immediately headed to A-ball in Walla Walla, Washington. He played for the Padres, as they were called then, of the Northwestern League for 65 games, and he destroyed the competition. Gwynn batted .375/.433/.651 and quickly moved on to Double-A Amarillo. With the Gold Sox of the Texas League, he hit .462/.490.725 in 23 games. There was really no reason for him to spend any more time at Double-A, so Gwynn was promoted to the Triple A Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League to start the 1982 season. With the Islanders, Gwynn hit .328/.358/.433 in 93 games.
On July 19, 1982, Time Magazine was busy looking at the conflict in Beirut, a possible election year tax increase, and the future of the Space Shuttle Columbia. The baseball world though – at least in San Diego – had its attention focused on Jack Murphy Stadium. With 33,558 on hand, Tony Gwynn made his major league debut against the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Phillies started Mike Krukow that day, but it was Sid Monge that would be entered into the history books. Krukow kept Gwynn hitless in his first at-bat. However, after being replaced in the second inning after a rough performance, Monge would eventually give up the first major league hit in Gwynn’s career. By the eighth inning, Gwynn had already driven in his first major league run with a sacrifice fly in the first inning. However, he had yet to reach base. That all changed in the eight inning.
In the eighth inning, with the Padres trailing 7-4, Gwynn stroked a double to center field. One can only imagine the thoughts running through his head as he passed Pete Rose manning first base for the Phillies. Here was a 22 year old kid just starting his career hustling past Charlie Hustle himself. And it lead to one of the more famous baseball scenarios in history after Gwynn collected his second hit, a single in the ninth.
Bill Conlin of The Sporting News wrote in 1982 of Tony Gwynn’s first and second career hits. He said,
Pete [Rose] didn’t get to chat with Padres center fielder Tony Gwynn because the young Padre’s first big league hit was a double. But when Gwynn singled later in the July 19th game, Rose shook his hand. Rose had collected his 3800th career hit that night. Pete said, ‘what are you trying to do kid, catch up to me all in one game?’
It’s a story that every Padres fan has told their children or their friends at one point or another. It’s a story that perfectly describes baseball’s history in contrast to its future. In 1982, Pete Rose was soon to be baseball’s history and Tony Gwynn was fast becoming the future.
Gwynn had a solid season in 1982 and helped the Padres to a nice .500 record. He hit .289/.337/.389 in 54 games. That would be the only year of his career in which Gwynn’s batting average was below .300. It would also be the only year of his career in which his OBP was below .350. For his career, Gwynn hit .338/.388/.459, collected 3,141 hits, and struck out just 434 times. His strikeout ratio is an often overlooked but incredibly fascinating feat. In 9,288 at bats, Gwynn struck out just 4.7% of the time.
In 20 seasons, Gwynn collected 8 batting titles. In the history of the game only Ty Cobb has more with 11. But Gwynn was so much more than a Hall of Famer and record holder. He was the face of San Diego. He took a franchise who had a few star players in their first 13 years and put them on the map. They may not have had wins, but they had Gwynn. That was good enough for something. Padres fans finally had a reason to come out to the park. They finally had a reason to be proud, even through the losing seasons.
Sometimes, the game of baseball is nothing more than luck. Had the Padres had the 57th pick, they may have chose a career minor league player named Glenn Gallagher. If they had the 59th pick, they may have chose another career minor leaguer named Bill Babcock. But they had the 58th pick, and they chose Tony Gwynn. They lured him away from a potential basketball career, one that saw him drafted by the then San Diego Clippers that same day.
San Diego had a star either way, but Gwynn clearly picked the right sport. Mr. Padre can never be replicated, replaced, or forgotten in San Diego. It’s fitting that his first game was in San Diego and he got his first hit with Pete Rose paying opposite him with the Phillies.