Inaugural Tony Gwynn Classic draws impressive 8-team field
SAN DIEGO (AP) In life, Tony Gwynn was honored with a plaque in Cooperstown and by having his name adorn a sweet little ballpark at San Diego State.
Nearly two years after he died, the Hall of Famer will be remembered in perhaps the most appropriate way. The inaugural Tony Gwynn Classic will be held Friday through Sunday at San Diego State's Tony Gwynn Stadium and the University of San Diego's Fowler Park.
''The coolest thing is we get to hear Tony's name all the time,'' said USD coach Rich Hill, a teammate of Gwynn's at SDSU in 1981. ''We go into this blindly, without any expectations. It's just, Tony Gwynn, Tony Gwynn, Tony Gwynn. That's the way it should be. I love hearing his name being attached to this tournament.''
The tournament opens Friday with Arizona facing Tulane and USD hosting Nebraska at Fowler Park. Across Mission Valley, Kentucky will play UC Santa Barbara and SDSU will host Bryant at Tony Gwynn Stadium.
The winners in both brackets will play each other on Saturday, with the winners of those games playing for the title at Tony Gwynn Stadium at 10 a.m. on Sunday.
After retiring from his 20-year career with the San Diego Padres in 2001, Gwynn spent one season as volunteer coach at SDSU and then took over as head coach. He spent 12 seasons in his dream job.
''He wanted to improve college baseball in San Diego and really promote our game,'' Hill said. ''He loved SDSU and the baseball program. More than anything he wanted to elevate the visibility and presence and make it compelling.''
Gwynn gave his approval for the tournament when the idea was presented to him by a group headed by tournament director Jack Murray, who does Internet play-by-play for USD baseball. After Gwynn died of cancer on June 16, 2014, the tournament was named in his memory.
''Hopefully this is a forever, long-lasting tournament that programs around the country can kind of point to,'' said Mark Martinez, who succeeded Gwynn as the Aztecs' coach.
The Tony Gwynn Classic fields are set through 2018, put together by John Cunningham, who was USD's coach for 35 seasons. Cunningham is already working on the field for 2019.
''That's really a testament to coach Gwynn's legacy,'' Martinez said.
The field ''is as good as there is out there,'' Hill said. ''Those schools love it. They get to come to San Diego. The weather is going to be great. Tony Gwynn Stadium and Fowler Park are two of the best venues on West Coast. The inaugural tournament is exciting. Every year after this, people are begging us to get in. Coach Cunningham and Jack Murray are able to pick and choose. They're able to bring the best to San Diego. Tony's vision elevated our game and it's happening.''
Notre Dame, Oregon and Wichita State are among teams booked for 2017, while Arizona, Michigan, Oklahoma and Arkansas are in the 2018 field.
Arizona's first-year coach, Jay Johnson, is trying to get the Wildcats invited every even year. He wanted to be in the inaugural field so badly that after he jumped from Nevada to Arizona, he was able to get the tournament committee to tweak the bracket.
''It's awesome from a program standpoint,'' said Johnson, who spent eight seasons on Hill's staff at USD before serving as head coach at Nevada for two seasons. ''San Diego will be one of our top recruiting grounds, without question. To be associated with all the great programs playing in it is an awesome honor.''
Johnson said the Wildcats have only player who's played in an NCAA regional.
''This type of environment would be as close to an NCAA regional-type field as we can get,'' he said. ''I felt it would be valuable experience for our guys.''
Johnson coached against Gwynn both with USD and Nevada.
''He was someone I looked up to for a long time,'' Johnson said. ''He was one of my favorite players as a kid growing up. To get a chance to compete with him and play in this tournament that honors him, from a personal level also is very special.''
Nebraska coach Darin Erstad was a contemporary of Gwynn's in the big leagues.
''Obviously we wish he was here to celebrate it with us,'' Erstad said.
Erstad remembers watching Gwynn take early batting practice when the Angels played the Padres in interleague games.
''I definitely watched from a distance in awe,'' Erstad said. ''The way he could do what he wanted to do with the baseball was a lot of fun to watch.''
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