Phillies’ Sandberg, Bowa remember Tony Gwynn as relentless hitting icon

ATLANTA — The Philadelphia Phillies’ locker room was full of heavy hearts on Monday, after the club learned of the death of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn — the father of Phillies outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr.

While the team didn’t release a formal statement regarding the older Gwynn — a 20-year mainstay of the San Diego Padres (his only MLB franchise) and a member of the 3,000 Hit Club (3,141, to be exact) — Phillies skipper Ryne Sandberg and bench coach Larry Bowa spoke to reporters before Monday’s game against the Braves.

"It’s a sad day in baseball," said Sandberg, a Hall of Fame second baseman with the Chicago Cubs (1981-97). "Tony Gwynn was a guy of my era. (Back) 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, (Gwynn) was the guy at the top everyone was chasing. He set the standard.

"He was a guy I paid attention to on what he was doing," continued Sandberg about the senior Gwynn, a 15-time All-Star and lifetime .338 hitting (five seasons of 200-plus hits). "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."

Earlier in the day, Sandberg had a quick text exchange with the younger Gwynn (batting .155 in 52 games with Philly), who is currently on the West Coast with his family (MLB bereavement leave).

Tony Gwynn Sr., who died at age 54, had been a fixture with California sports since the 1970s, starring as a point guard/outfielder for San Diego State University during the late 70s/early 80s.

Gwynn, the San Diego State baseball coach before taking medical leave in March (cancer treatments), was subsequently drafted by the San Diego Padres (MLB) and NBA’s San Diego Clippers in the same year — 1981 — but ultimately chose the path of least resistance to the pros … with the Padres.

The two-sport star certainly made the correct choice. For the strike-halted season of 1994, Gwynn (two World Series appearances — 1984, 1998) was batting a cool .394 when league play stopped for good on Aug. 12 — reluctantly clinching the highest seasonal batting average in the modern era (minimum 400 at-bats).

(Hall of Famer Ted Williams batted .406 with the Boston Red Sox in 1941; and Royals third baseman George Brett — also a Hall of Famer — rolled for .390 in 1980.)

Bowa, the elder Gwynn’s third big-league manager in San Diego (1987-88), has been a long-standing supporter of his former player, perpetually amazed by Gwynn’s special skill set with the bat.

"He could hit a ball anywhere wanted to. Between third and short, pull it, up the middle. One of the hardest guys ever to defend; and he had a lot of speed," recalled Bowa. "What I didn’t know is he was a great basketball player. He always used to talk about how he could dunk. I’d say, Get out of here!

"We all know he was a great player, but he was a great human being."

Bowa then shared an interesting comparison amongst Gwynn, all-time hit king Pete Rose (4,256 hits) and Hall of Famer Rod Carew (3,053 hits, .328 career batting average):

"(Gwynn’s) abilities were off the charts. He could recognize a pitch as soon as it left a pitcher’s hand. Not too many guys could do that — Pete (Rose), maybe Rod Carew. He studied it, though. He had video before (it was specialized)," gushed Bowa.