UPDATE: Tony Gwynn died Monday at age 54. The following story ran Sunday, June 15 on Father's Day.
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Tony Gwynn Jr. will rise in Philadelphia on Sunday morning and wait for the call from the West Coast. It’s Father’s Day, of course, and Gwynn’s heart will bubble with joy when he hears the voices of his wife and three young daughters who are still back home in San Diego finishing up the school year.
After receiving all those long-distance Father’s Day hugs from his girls, Gwynn will place a call right back to the West Coast to deliver some Father’s Day love of his own.
“I always try to get in an I love you,” he said. “For a while that was uncomfortable for me, I don’t know why. But since 2010, it hasn’t been uncomfortable. It’s something I want to make sure I get in because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Gwynn’s father, Tony Gwynn Sr., is one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, an eight-time National League batting champion, perennial All-Star, first-ballot Hall of Famer and undisputed gentleman of the game. He was one of those rare players, like Banks, Ripken and Musial, whose talent, longevity and personality allowed him to become synonymous with his ballclub. He is so identifiable with San Diego’s major league baseball team that they call him Mr. Padre. It says it right on the statue outside the stadium.
To Tony Jr., Mr. Padre is just “Pops.”
“My best friend,” said Tony Jr., a 31-year-old outfielder in his eighth big-league season and first with the Phillies. “Just a good dude.”
Anyone who has ever met Tony Gwynn Sr. would agree with that.
There are probably reasons why young Tony didn’t find it easy to tell his dad he loved him when he was a youngster. (There’s one right there -- youth.) Maybe he was too busy playing catch with his dad, or taking swings with him, or picking his brain about hitting -- that would be like talking religion with God, wouldn’t it? -- to say it. Maybe he was too busy playing pranks, like the time he secretly turned the car stereo up full-blast and Pops, his eardrums ringing, came charging into the house shouting, “Ant-nee! Leave my radio alone!”
But it all changed in 2010 when Pops was found to have cancer in a salivary gland. Suddenly, those I love yous came a lot easier for Junior. Tony Sr. has had two surgeries since the diagnosis, one to remove a cancerous tumor from inside his right cheek. He has theorized that years of using chewing tobacco led to his cancer, but his doctors have not proven that. Either way, young Tony quit chewing cold turkey when his father was diagnosed. He said he sneaked a pinch last year, but quickly rethought his decision.
Four years after being diagnosed with cancer, Tony Gwynn Sr. fights on.
In recent months, the battle has gotten tougher. Gwynn has tried some new treatments that have sapped his energy and weakened his immune system. In March, he had to take a leave of absence from San Diego State University, where he has been head baseball coach since 2003. The Aztecs went on to win the Mountain West Conference tournament with a Tony Gwynn bobblehead sitting in the dugout taking in all the action. Tony Jr. played one season for his dad in college before being selected by Milwaukee in the 2003 draft. It was a special time for the kid because, after watching his best friend leave on Padres’ road trips all those years, “I got him all year long and it was awesome.”
The last few months have not been awesome.
“This has been the hardest of the four years he’s fought it, by far,” Tony Jr. said.
“When I left for spring training he was in a good spot, and now he’s not in that same spot, so from that standpoint I guess it has worsened. But in the big scheme of things, which is getting healthy so he can do the things he wants to do, I see light at the end of the tunnel. I can’t say that he does, but then again he’s the one going through this, and it’s tough on him.”
As a player, Tony Gwynn exhibited a great joy for the game. He was known for his big smile, his spirit and his enthusiasm almost as much as his sweet left-handed stroke.
It’s tough to hear that this good man, just 54 years old, is going through such a difficult time.
“Imagine what it’s like for a son who’s been with him his whole life and known that same guy off and on the field,” Tony Jr. said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Tony Jr. gets updates on his dad’s health from his mother, Alicia, who is by her husband’s side as he fights the fight at home in San Diego. Alicia and Tony Sr. were high school sweethearts.
“She’s really been both of our pillars,” Tony Jr. said. “That’s nothing new. She’s been that way our whole life.”
When Tony Jr. was a kid, he’d accompany his father to work at Jack Murphy Stadium every day once school got out. They’d talk baseball to and from the ballpark. OK, sometimes they’d talk hoops. Tony Sr. played baseball and basketball at San Diego State and Tony Jr. was a pretty fair basketball player himself.
“It took me till I was 15 to beat him in one on one,” Tony Jr. said.
Tony Jr. can tell his father’s battle has gotten more serious from their recent phone calls. They hardly talk baseball these days.
“A lot of our conversations have been brief lately, which isn’t normal because we both like to talk -- a lot,” Tony Jr. said. “The last conversation we had about baseball was in spring training.
“It’s usually just about his health and that’s unusual, too, because usually when we talk it’s about baseball.
“For us not to talk about baseball for that long -- it’s been difficult, I’m not going to lie. It’s something that I’ve always had, even as an adult. Even when I didn’t steer the conversation to baseball, he steered the conversation to baseball. So that lets me know how he’s doing, really, the fact that he doesn’t even bring up baseball.
“He’s hurting. No doubt.”
While there are more important matters than baseball in the Gwynn family’s life right now, the game does have its place.
Tony Jr. said the most memorable advice his dad ever gave him was: Take care of your family. Baseball is his job, it’s how he takes care of his family. He is ready to play every day, and his dad should be proud. Phillies management is aware of Gwynn’s personal situation. They have told him he can be excused to be with his dad at any time, but he presses on.
“I go through moments during the day where it’s heavy on the mind and then I get a little bit of a reprieve during the game or in the batting cage,” he said. “Other than that, when there’s down time, I’m usually thinking about my dad.”
Tony Gwynn Jr. inherited his dad’s smile and friendly personality. He even sounds like his dad when he talks. Even in these tough times, he’s full of hope and optimism. He believes his dad will win this toughening battle and coach at San Diego State again.
“He’s a fighter,” Tony Jr. said. “He’s going to battle it out, but please keep him in your prayers.”
There will be nothing uncomfortable about it when Tony Gwynn Jr. calls home and tells his Pops, “I love you,” this Father’s Day. It will be strong and clear and he will repeat it every day until next Father’s Day and the one after that and the one after that …
“This hasn’t been the easiest year for the Gwynn family, but we’ll make it through,” he said.