ATLANTA – Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg was in a somber mood before Monday’s night game at Turner Field.
That’s the way it is when there’s a death in the family.
Tony Gwynn was a longtime National League opponent of Sandberg’s. The two played together in All-Star Games. Their playing careers were so spectacular that they both ended up in the Hall of Fame. When their playing careers were over both moved into managing/coaching, Sandberg in the Cubs and Phillies organizations, Gwynn at his alma mater, San Diego State University.
Sandberg and Gwynn have more in common. Sandberg manages Tony Gwynn Jr. on the Phillies. And Gwynn was 54 years old -- way too young -- when he died of cancer on Monday. Sandberg is also 54.
“It's a sad day in baseball,” said Sandberg, his comment echoed by many across the game.
“Tony Gwynn was a guy of my era. In the day when players wanted to see batting averages and see how they stacked up, they would look in the sports pages, and for eight years he was the guy at the top everyone was chasing. He set the standard. If you wanted a batting title, he was the guy you had to shoot for.
“He was one of the few players who I would go out and watch take batting practice just to see the swing and the results. It's a big loss to baseball.”
Gwynn won eight NL batting titles, one of them under Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa, who managed Gwynn’s San Diego Padres in 1987.
“We all know he was a great player, but he was a great human being,” Bowa said.
Gwynn was a diligent worker and student of hitting, one of the first to study his swing and opposing pitchers on video. Now everyone does it.
Bowa recalled driving home from a game in San Diego one night and seeing the lights on at a local batting cage. It was Gwynn, stopping his car on the way home to take some swings.
Bowa recalled: “The next day I get to the park, and he’s always the first one there, and he’s hitting and everything, and I said, ‘Man, you got here early to hit, and he said, ‘Yeah, last night, too.’
“I said, ‘That batting cage that I drive by, that was you?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I was hitting.’
“I don’t know if he owned the cage, or knew the guy that owned it, but this is a great hitter and it’s 11 o’clock at night and he’s taking swings in the batting cage. He was an unbelievable guy. Forget what he did on the field. He was a great human being. I mean, unbelievable. It was an honor for me just to be able to manage him. And he was very underrated as an outfielder. Believe me. He was very good as an outfielder.”
Tony Gwynn Jr. shared his thoughts about his father and his courageous four-year battle with cancer in this story on Sunday, Father’s Day. Tony Sr. died early Monday morning. Tony Jr. was with the Phillies in Atlanta. He flew home to San Diego and is on MLB’s bereavement list for three to seven days. The Phillies brought up outfielder Aaron Altherr from Double A to fill in for Gwynn.
“Junior has had a lot on his mind,” Bowa said. “He told the team a few weeks ago that his dad was pretty sick, so he's had to fight through this."