SAN DIEGO — Tony Gwynn could handle a bat like few others, whether it was driving the ball through the "5.5 hole" between third base and shortstop or homering off the Yankee Stadium facade in the World Series.
He was a craftsman at the plate, whose sweet left-handed swing made him one of baseball's greatest hitters.
Mr. Gwynn loved San Diego.
San Diego loved "Mr. Padre" right back.
Mr. Gwynn, a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest athletes in San Diego's history, died Monday of oral cancer, a disease he attributed to years of chewing tobacco. He was 54.
"Our city is a little darker today without him but immeasurably better because of him," Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a statement.
Mr. Gwynn played his whole career with the Padres, choosing to stay in the city where he was a two-sport star in college. He had 3,141 hits, 18th all time, and a career .338 average and won eight batting titles to tie Honus Wagner's NL record.
"Think about the number of people Tony's touched, the generations he touched in San Diego for 30 years," former Padres closer Trevor Hoffman, Mr. Gwynn's longtime teammate, told the Union-Times of San Diego. "Say you were an eighth-grader in 1980. You're watching him on the hardcourt at San Diego State.
"Now he's drafted by your hometown team. The 8-year-old is now a 12-year-old, and that's just the start of a 20-year career. Or you're the 50-year-old who followed him throughout his career in the same city."
As throughout baseball, there were fond memories of Mr. Gwynn around the Trop. Rays infielder Logan Forsythe came up with the Padres and got to meet and work with him during a development camp.
"The time I did get to spend with Tony was very personal," Forsythe said. "It was kind of like one-on-one type hitting, and just to listen to him talk it was impressive how much he knew about the art of hitting and how much he enjoyed it. But the greatest thing about Tony, he was such a class act. He would come in and talk to any guy. He always had a smile on his face, and had a huge heart."
Manager Joe Maddon was a player/coach with the Boulder Collegians summer team when he met Mr. Gwynn, who was a new recruit. He was immediately impressed when he laced a double down the leftfield line his first at-bat, more so during ensuing instructional league play when Mr. Gwynn joined the Padres and Maddon the Angels. "The first time I saw him in instructional league it was either four doubles on five pitches or five doubles on six pitches," Maddon said.
Overall, Maddon said, "He was really an artist when it came to hitting."
"He was The Guy," said Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, a former Padre and San Diego State alum. "When I was growing up, he was the player my dad talked about and pointed to as the example of a hitter, the way he approached every at-bat and swung the bat.
"He was our role model. As a professional. As a man."
Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.