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Tony Gwynn and the story he never got to read

I learned of Tony Gwynn's death, by coincidence, while on a trip to San Diego.

In town to visit family, I hadn't been awake long Monday when a legion of mournful tweets appeared on my phone. I cursed quietly and skimmed through the online obituaries. Then it hit me: Unintentionally, I had been one of the last reporters to interview the baseball legend.

Early this year, I agreed to profile Gwynn, 54, for a travel magazine. The publication occasionally highlights celebrities people identify with certain regions. I liked the idea. Gwynn embodied San Diego, where he was known as "Mr. Padre" and had lived for 36 years. City and star were even defined the same ways: friendly, happy, classy, laid back.

Plus, try to name an athlete better described as sunny and 72.

I knew he was busy — dealing with cancer while coaching baseball at San Diego State, his alma mater, left time for little else — so I didn't count on him agreeing to an interview with a reporter 2,000 miles away.

I read articles and watched his Hall of Fame induction speech three times. I contacted people who knew him: a politician, a sportswriter, an assistant coach.

Then, one afternoon in March, he called.

His voice strained and cracked, but it didn't lack in fervor. Gwynn was so affable, it distracted me. I wasn't talking to someone I'd known for years, as he made it seem. This was Tony Gwynn, with 15 All-Star Game appearances, five Gold Gloves and seven Silver Slugger Awards.

And cancer.

I learned he was coaching with bandages wrapped around his head and neck. His illness had hardly kept him from the team, and he didn't expect it to.

"I'm doing good. I'm doing good," he told me. "I'm still getting treatment."

He changed the subject.

We talked mostly of his deep relationship with the city, because that was my assignment. He believed San Diegans so adored him for simple reasons. He worked hard, stayed humble.

"A grinder," he said.

Gwynn was, by his own admission, boring. He never had an entourage or appeared in scandalous headlines. On road trips, he played video games in his hotel room while other guys hit the bars. He had visited San Diego's beaches just twice. His wife's cooking was his favorite.

"My hobbies right now," he said, "are my grandchildren."

He laughed often and in a way that, even over the phone, made me smile. Three people I talked to used the term "infectious" to describe his personality.

I got it.

We didn't discuss his health at length because I didn't understand its seriousness, but I sensed his frustration.

He was discouraged that past victories and successful surgeries seemed to have counted for nothing. One operation had disabled his much-loved smile for a time, but Gwynn had fought to reclaim it.

He also deeply regretted that years of chewing tobacco — perhaps his only vice — had likely caused the disease in his salivary gland. Still, Gwynn told me he would beat cancer for a third time.

He talked of his future not with hope, but with certainty.

If San Diego State allowed it, he would coach the team for 18 more years, because that's how many he needed to reach 30, equaling the school record. He would see his son — Tony Jr., with the Phillies — succeed in the majors wearing his famous No. 19. He would watch his grandchildren grow up.

He said those things more than once and with such conviction that it seemed at times he was trying to convince himself, as if the grinder could just will them into being.

At the end of our second conversation, Gwynn asked that I send him copies of the magazine when the story was published, and for a moment, the fan in me overtook the reporter.

Tony Gwynn wants to read my profile on Tony Gwynn.

I promised I would (grinning, no doubt).

Last week I learned the story had run just days before his death. And sure, I was disappointed that he had never read what I had written about him. I think he would have liked most of it.

The deepest disappointment, of course, was that a good man — truly — had died too young.

Since Monday, almost every person I told of the interviews asked me the same question: Was Tony Gwynn as nice as he seemed for all those years?

Nicer, I told them.

Reach John Woodrow Cox at jcox@tampabay.com.

Tony Gwynn and the story he never got to read 06/20/14 [Last modified: Saturday, June 21, 2014 8:53pm]
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