Before the eight batting titles, before the National League pennants. Before he was dubbed "Mr. Padre" and before the .338 lifetime batting average. Long before the Hall of Fame, Tony Gywnn starred at Long Beach Poly on the basketball court and, of course, on the baseball diamond.
"He was great then," said Rick Reyes, a classmate of Gwynn’s younger brother Chris. "In the Long Beach community, people wanted to be like him especially for baseball. I grew up as a baseball player and watched him play.
"He was a two-way star."
Gwynn played basketball at San Diego State and is still the school’s all-time leader in assists. He was a draft pick of the then-San Diego Clippers, but baseball was where he made his mark, playing 20 big league seasons — all with the Padres as a 15-time All-Star. He spent the last 12 seasons as the head coach at his alma mater.
On Monday, Gwynn passed away at the age of 54 after a bout with cancer.
While he will be remembered for his sweet swing, the impression he leaves with the Long Beach Poly baseball community includes much more than that. Gwynn’s impact was simply time.
Upon taking over as head coach of the Long Beach Poly baseball program, Toby Hess was asked why he didn’t reach out to Gwynn about making donations to the program. After all, he was the most notable alum of the baseball program and the field at Long Beach Poly was named after the Gwynn family.
Hess never did. He wanted something more valuable than equipment or new uniforms. He wanted time.
Gwynn granted Hess and the Long Beach Poly baseball program just that. In 2010, after getting through some NCAA red tape, the Poly program boarded a bus and made the trip down to San Diego where Gwynn and the school hosted them on Opening Day.
Early in the day Gwynn touched all the bases, speaking on a variety of topics from academics to love of the game to growing up in Long Beach to, of course, hitting.
One would be hard-pressed to find anyone more qualified to talk about that last topic than Gwynn. Hitting was his craft, and he was good at it. Very good.
A name that continued to be recognized throughout Long Beach, Gwynn was someone UC Riverside outfielder and then 15-year-old for the Long Beach Poly program, Thomas Walker, had a lot of questions for.
Of the 30-minutes worth of questions Gwynn answered that day, Walker had the lion share of them. The words uttered by Gwynn that day have stuck with Walker, who hit .328 for the Highlanders last season.
"The one thing that Tony Gwynn was a big fan of is the videotape," Walker recalled. "I think the video thing was the one thing that stuck with me the most. After that I was begging my dad to videotape me on phones and on little cameras, and then when I got to college, coaches had videotape. That’s one thing I use the most (to) be able to watch my swing."
But that wasn’t all. There were other things Gwynn held near and dear to hitting. Walker paid attention.
(It’s) a tough day for everybody here, but we’ve got to celebrate his life.
-- Long Beach Poly baseball coach Toby Hess
"He said one of his favorite drills was to do wiffle ball stuff either with a small bat or a normal bat," Walker said. "He said the wiffle ball won’t lie. If you miss it, it will roll down real quick or if you pop up it will go straight up and you can see a good line drive trajectory off of the wiffle ball. I thought that was interesting being a Major League baseball player and a Division I head coach that he though wiffle balls were one of the best drills to do before the game or at practice."
Walker, who began his collegiate career at Oregon, was one of five players who made the trip to sign with a Pac-12 program.
It was a tremendous day for the Long Beach Poly program and Hess got his wish. He wanted time. Gwynn granted it.
"He was happy to have the Long Beach kids come down, he’s been in San Diego so long," Hess said. "It’s one of the best days we’ve ever had here in my eight years here. We got kids to connect with somebody who’s so important in this community. We always talk about in this program we’re going to have a class-first program. The Tony Gwynn’s and the Derek Jeter’s and the Cal Ripken’s are the role models for how our conduct is going to be. And that’s how he lived his life — loyal, one team, do things the right way, treat people with class, conduct themselves with class.
"(It’s) a tough day for everybody here, but we’ve got to celebrate his life."