Gwynn Jr. can focus on career again

In college baseball, he was known as Anthony Gwynn. That is, after all, his given name. And with it, the young man was able to preserve a sense of individuality.

But then he continued following his father in the family business, in ways endearing and uncanny: He’s an outfielder. He bats left-handed. He played at San Diego State University. He became a San Diego Padre.

No sense in disguising it with a few extra consonants.

He’s Tony Gwynn Jr.

For years, there have been inevitable comparisons to his father’s Hall of Fame playing career. Now, the link is more human and heartrending.

You see, just about anyone with a passing connection to baseball is familiar with Tony Gwynn, one of the friendliest hitting geniuses of all time. So when folks see Tony Gwynn Jr. in a box score, they make the connection. And in recent months, many of them have approached the younger Gwynn to ask a variation on the same question.

How’s your dad doing?

Tony Gwynn Sr. is battling cancer of the parotid gland. The diagnosis was made last summer and became public in October. Gwynn also underwent back surgery recently, but his overall health has improved enough that he resumed his duties as the head baseball coach at SDSU.

Tony Jr. realizes the questions from friends and strangers about his father’s health are well-intentioned. Still, there were times — not all that long ago — when the answer was something well south of “good.” For that reason, Milwaukee Brewers star Prince Fielder, one of Gwynn’s closest friends, said he only asked about Tony Sr.’s health once in recent weeks.

“When he was going through chemo and radiation, it was hard (to answer the questions),” Gwynn said this week, at his locker in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ clubhouse. “Now that he’s healthy, the fact that people are concerned about him, it’s nice. It’s humbling, to see how much people really care.

“Anytime people aren’t in your immediate family, but they’re concerned as if they were, it’s a good thing.”

Out of necessity, the illness changed how the closely knit Gwynns have communicated in recent months. Their daily conversations became a little less frequent.

“Before the season started, I think he was down,” the 28-year-old said. “I don’t know if he really wanted to talk all the time. I kind of gave him his space a little bit. But he’s starting to get back healthy enough to the point where he enjoys talking.

“Baseball’s always been an antidote for him when he’s not feeling well. If I can throw some things at him, as far as baseball’s concerned, and let him talk about it, you can hear it in his voice. It’s therapeutic for him.

“Everybody who knows my dad knows how much he likes to laugh, likes to smile. For six weeks, it just wasn’t there. The chemo knocks you down. But it’s good to see his teeth come back out and show that smile.”

Tony Jr. acknowledged that his father’s health is “constantly” on his mind. Even then, San Diego outfielder Will Venable said Gwynn was able to keep his focus while at the ballpark last summer. “There were very few times when I saw Tony really down,” Venable said.

The elder Gwynn, a 3,141-hit artist, lasted two decades in the major leagues. The Padres were his only employer. So there was something poetic about the May 2009 trade that sent his son from Milwaukee to San Diego. Young Tony had some nice moments as a Padre, including an Opening Day start in center field last year, long before anyone suspected the team would wake up on the final day of the season with a chance to make the playoffs.

But Gwynn, a superb defender, finished the year with a batting average of only .204. Rather than pay him the required raise through salary arbitration, the Padres declined to offer him a contract by the Dec. 2 deadline.

Gwynn acknowledged that his dad “was kind of hurt a little bit” after the Padres cut him. But the disappointment didn’t last for long. Gwynn agreed to a contract with the Dodgers roughly one week later. Dodgers officials love his defensive ability, and he has an excellent chance to make the Opening Day roster as a fourth or fifth outfielder.

Tony Jr. is glad to be playing close to his beloved Lakers. Dad is pleased, too.

“He’s happy that I’m getting another opportunity,” Gwynn said. “Once he found out how close I was going to be staying, he was pretty excited about it.”

As long as his father’s prognosis remains encouraging, this should be an upbeat spring for Gwynn. He can impress a new organization. He can hit his way to more playing time. He can carve out a role with what should be a very good team.

"What Senior did was so exceptional that I don’t think anyone realistically would expect Junior to repeat the things that Senior had done," Venable said. "But Tony’s a perfectionist. If there is pressure on him to be a great player, it’s coming from himself. He’s a hard worker with a lot of ability. He expects that to turn into results."

In other words, he plans to continue making a name for himself.