SAN DIEGO — Tony Gwynn could handle a bat like few other major leaguers, whether it was driving the ball through the “5.5 hole” between third base and shortstop or hitting a home run off the facade in Yankee Stadium in the World Series.
He was a craftsman at the plate, whose sweet left-handed swing made him one of baseball’s greatest hitters.
Gwynn loved San Diego.
San Diego loved “Mr. Padre” right back.
Gwynn, a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest athletes in San Diego’s history, died Monday of oral cancer, a disease he attributed to years of chewing tobacco. He was 54.
“Our city is a little darker today without him but immeasurably better because of him,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a statement.
In a rarity in pro sports, Gwynn played his whole career with the Padres, choosing to stay in the city where he was a two-sport star in college, rather than leaving for bigger paychecks elsewhere. His terrific hand-eye coordination made him one of the game’s greatest pure hitters. He had 3,141 hits – 18th on the all-time list – a career .338 average and won eight batting titles to tie Honus Wagner’s NL record.
He struck out only 434 times in 9,288 career at-bats. He played in San Diego’s only two World Series – batting a combined .371 – and was a 15-time All-Star. He had a memorable home run in Game 1 of the 1998 World Series off fellow San Diegan David Wells, and scored the winning run in the 1994 All-Star Game despite a bum knee.
Gwynn never hit below .309 in a full season. He spread out his batting titles from 1984, when he batted .351, to 1997, when he hit .372.
Gwynn was hitting .394 when a players’ strike ended the 1994 season, denying him a shot at becoming the first player to hit .400 since San Diego native Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941.
Gwynn befriended Williams and the two loved to talk about hitting. Gwynn steadied Williams when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the 1999 All-Star Game at Boston’s Fenway Park.
Fellow Hall of Famer Greg Maddux tweeted, “Tony Gwynn was the best pure hitter I ever faced! Condolences to his family.”
Gwynn was known for his hearty laugh and warm personality. Every day at 4 p.m., Gwynn sat in the Padres’ dugout and talked baseball or anything else with the media.
Tim Flannery, who was teammates with Gwynn on the Padres’ 1984 World Series team and later was on San Diego’s coaching staff, said he’ll “remember the cackle to his laugh. He was always laughing, always talking, always happy.”
“The baseball world is going to miss one of the greats, and the world itself is going to miss one of the great men of mankind,” said Flannery, the San Francisco Giants’ third base coach. “He cared so much for other people. He had a work ethic unlike anybody else, and had a childlike demeanor of playing the game just because he loved it so much.”
Gwynn had been on a medical leave since late March from his job as baseball coach at San Diego State, his alma mater. He died at a hospital in suburban Poway, agent John Boggs said.
“He was in a tough battle and the thing I can critique is he’s definitely in a better place,” Boggs said. “He suffered a lot. He battled. That’s probably the best way I can describe his fight against this illness he had, and he was courageous until the end.”
Gwynn’s wife, Alicia, and other family members were at his side when he died, Boggs said.
Gwynn’s son, Tony Jr., was with the Philadelphia Phillies, who later placed him on the bereavement list.
“Today I lost my Dad, my best friend and my mentor,” Gwynn Jr. tweeted. “I’m gonna miss u so much pops. I’m gonna do everything in my power to continue to ... Make u proud!”
Gwynn had two operations for cancer in his right cheek between August 2010 and February 2012. The second surgery was complicated, with surgeons removing a facial nerve because it was intertwined with a tumor inside his right cheek. They grafted a nerve from Gwynn’s neck to help him eventually regain facial movement.
Gwynn had been in and out of the hospital and had spent time in a rehab facility, Boggs said.
“For more than 30 years, Tony Gwynn was a source of universal goodwill in the national pastime, and he will be deeply missed by the many people he touched,” Commissioner Bud Selig said.
Fans paid their respects by visiting the statue of Gwynn on a grassy knoll just beyond the outfield at Petco Park.
Gwynn was last with his San Diego State team on March 25 before beginning a leave of absence. His Aztecs rallied around a Gwynn bobblehead doll they would set near the bat rack during games, winning the Mountain West Conference tournament and advancing to the NCAA regionals.
Last week, SDSU announced it was extending Gwynn’s contract one season. The Aztecs play at Tony Gwynn Stadium, which was built in the mid-1990s with a $4 million donation by then-Padres owner John Moores.
Gwynn was born in Los Angeles on May 9, 1960, and attended high school in Long Beach.
He was a two-sport star at San Diego State in the late 1970s and early 1980s, playing point guard for the basketball team – he still holds the game, season and career record for assists – and in the outfield on the baseball team.
Gwynn always wanted to play in the NBA, until realizing during his final year at San Diego State that baseball would be the ticket to the pros.
He was drafted by both the Padres (third round) and San Diego Clippers (10th round) on the same day in 1981.
After spending parts of just two seasons in the minor leagues, he made his big league debut on July 19, 1982. Gwynn had two hits that night. After Gwynn hit a double, all-time hits leader Pete Rose, who been trailing the play, said to him: “Hey, kid, what are you trying to do, catch me in one night?”
In a career full of highlights, Gwynn had his 3,000th hit on Aug. 9, 1999, a first-inning single to right field at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.
Gwynn retired after the 2001 season and became a volunteer assistant coach at SDSU in 2002. He took over as head coach after that season.
He and Cal Ripken Jr. – who spent his entire career with the Baltimore Orioles – were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007.
“I had no idea that all the things in my career were going to happen,” Gwynn said shortly before being inducted. “I sure didn’t see it. I just know the good Lord blessed me with ability, blessed me with good eyesight and a good pair of hands, and then I worked at the rest.”
Gwynn also is survived by a daughter, Anisha.
Boggs said services were pending.