Baseball aside, Tony Gwynn was great, period

It’s been 24 hours since the news of Tony Gwynn’s death, but there’s a sadness in me that hasn’t yet subsided. I didn’t know Gwynn beyond the typical reporter-ballplayer relationship, but like so many others who have written about him, I felt a bond that remained long after he retired from baseball.

As a beat writer for many years, I covered the Dodgers, Angels, Yankees, Mets, Giants and A’s. Unless you knew a player, it was rare to visit the opposing team’s clubhouse before a game. But when the San Diego Padres were the opponent, it was almost an obligation to stop by Gwynn’s locker.

He was not like most professional athletes. He didn’t sneer at reporters or retreat to an off-limits room. He didn’t refuse an interview request. He didn’t offer pointless cliches. He didn’t look at a reporter trying to figure out if there was a hidden agenda.

He was honest, forthright and introspective. He welcomed the chance to talk about hitting or a teammate. His answers had depth and meaning.

More than anything, he was a stand-up guy, win or lose. I recall a postgame interview after a Padres loss — it may have been a World Series game — when he gritted his teeth as he spoke. He was angry, seething, over a missed opportunity, but he didn’t refuse to talk or scold a reporter about a question he didn’t like.

To talk about Tony Gwynn the hitter is almost meaningless. He was great, period. He was much an artist as any great painter or singer. I believe he could have called his shot any time he wanted: a ground ball single between the shortstop and third baseman — the 5.5 hole, as he called it — or a line drive into the right-center field gap. He was that good.

Forget baseball. There are not enough people in life like Tony Gwynn

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He had his critics. Some said he was too overweight to steal bases, but he swiped 56 in 1987 and 319 in his career. Others said he didn’t hit for power, but he hit 17 home runs in 1997, 16 the next year and 135 in his career. He could have hit more, but his focus was on line drives, and any good hitter will tell you the key to good hitting is to drive the ball into the gaps. Homers are accidents.

He wasn’t good enough to play right field? He won five Gold Gloves out there. When I asked him one time if he would consider moving to the American League to be a DH and pursue 4,000 hits, he laughed. He would never do that, he said.

In more than 30 years of covering baseball, I can tell you I never saw a better hitter. For me, it was Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Ichiro Suzuki, Don Mattingly and Rickey Henderson. Those were the players I loved to watch because they were so dedicated to doing it well.

But few athletes I’ve encountered have measured up to Gwynn as a person. In that regard, he stood virtually alone.

I remember his last season with the Padres in 2001, when he sat in the dugout  in the late afternoon talking to one of the team’s beat reporters. He had already announced he was going to retire, and this was probably the last time I would see him.

I wanted to thank him for his generosity to my profession, but I didn’t want to intrude on an interview, and doing something like that was out of character for me. I prefer to keep a wall between myself and a player.

But I also knew this would be my last chance to say thanks for being such a nice guy.

So I did it. I apologized for my interruption, offered him my hand and said, "I just want to say thanks for always being so good to all the writers through the years."

He shook my hand, smiled at me and said thanks. Then he went back to his interview.

Later, as I thought about that momentary encounter, I was glad I had done it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was my only chance to say goodbye to a kind, caring man, someone who truly transcended the game.

But it doesn’t take away the sadness.