Gwynn Jr. forging ahead after his father's passing
Though it's difficult, Hall of Famer's son says he's 'focused on the task at hand'
SAN DIEGO -- For Tony Gwynn Jr., there hasn't been much time to mourn. The baseball season has a pace and presence to it that demands staying in the present and not reflecting on the past. There are signs and stories and memories of his famous father everywhere. Gwynn Sr., the Hall of Fame right fielder and eternal Padre, passed away June 16 at age 54 after a long battle with cancer of the salivary gland.
While the public took stock of the loss, it hit the family hardest, as always.
"This year has been really hard. It's still hard for me at this point," said Gwynn Jr., in town with the Phillies this week for a four-game series at Petco Park. "The key for me is just trying to go day to day and enjoy the day, the now, because I don't know what God has planned. I found that delving into the past too much can be a hindrance. That's probably been the hardest part for me, not dwelling too much in the past.
"Obviously, I have so many memories of my pops, I'm not going to forget them or lose them. But when you lose someone like that, your first instinct is to grab on to those memories and hold them as tight as you can and keep shoveling through them as much as you can. Suddenly, you find yourself not doing what you're supposed to be doing during the day."
There will be time for all of that, he knows, when the season ends. He can stop and reflect and try moving forward with his baseball career. This is only the second time Gwynn Jr. has been home since the funeral at the Student Union on the campus of San Diego State on June 21. Gwynn Sr. never played a game at Petco Park. His last game came at the end of the 2001 season across town at Qualcomm Stadium, the ballpark where the Padres played for his entire 20-year career.
But that hardly matters.
"He was instrumental in this being built," said Gwynn Jr., who had a short stint with Padres himself in 2009-10 and played the outfield at Petco.
Talk about reminders, the ballpark that opened in 2004 is located on the corner of K Street and Tony Gwynn Drive. The Gwynn statue in the Park beyond the right-center-field bleachers is a popular destination. The younger Gwynn has never seen the statue and found it was too difficult for him the take the trek out there this week.
"I haven't yet. I haven't yet," he said. "I'll probably do it in the offseason when I have more time."
The memories spin on. Taking a walk with his dad through Monument Park at the old Yankee Stadium as a 16-year-old the day before Game 1 of the 1998 World Series, playing a few seasons for him at San Diego State where Gwynn Sr. was the head coach from 2003 until his death, the drive across the desert his father took to see his son play in the Major Leagues for the first time after Gwynn Jr. was called up to the Brewers in 2006.
"Those are good memories to hold on to," Gwynn Jr. said. "Anything regarding my dad's baseball career, I generally remember like it was yesterday."
Particularly, now that the phone calls have forever stopped. The two were always close, speaking regularly until his dad became too sick to participate.
He was his father, coach and spiritual advisor, talking about everything from hitting to family to baseball to life. The last time Gwynn Jr. saw his father alive was just prior to joining the Phillies as a non-roster invitee this past February. By then, he knew the illness was growing dire. Gwynn Sr. had spent Christmas week in intensive care. For the first time in his career, Gwynn Jr. donned his dad's retired No. 19, and he still wears it in his honor.
The last time he had a conversation on the phone with him was this past spring.
"The last real talk I had with him was right after our series in New York [on May 11]," Gwynn Jr. said. "The bus ride home from that series was the last time I had a real conversation with him. From then on, he gradually couldn't talk. That was difficult in itself. We talked every other day from the time I started playing professional baseball. To not be able to talk to him was a real adjustment."
From then on, it was calls to his mom, Alicia, who would relay the messages. Even on Father's Day, the day before his dad died, Gwynn Jr. was only able to ask his mom to give him his well wishes.
"I told my mom to tell him I'd look forward to speaking with him at a time when he could talk," he said. "But I never got the chance, obviously. He passed the next day."
Even now, Gwynn Jr. says he can't fathom the fact he no longer can pick up the phone and reach his dad.
"It's super weird," he said. "I still have about 28 messages on my phone that I can't -- I haven't been able to bring myself to go through them yet. It's just like reliving that day."
Time marches on, though. On Tuesday, Gwynn Jr. was back in the starting lineup, leading off and in center field. When he saw the lineup card, he immediately called his mom, who lives in nearby Poway, and asked her to attend the game. She hadn't been back to Petco since the public memorial service on June 26. As her son went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, she sat in the stands.
"I think for her, that was a big thing," Gwynn Jr. said. "She's starting to turn the corner."
Gwynn Jr. said he began to turn the corner after the Phillies released him this summer and re-signed him to a Minor League contract. At 31 and with the rest of his life ahead of him, Gwynn Jr. realized he had to do what ballplayers do best: compartmentalize. That's what his dad would have wanted: "Hey, don't worry about me"
"When I went back to [Triple-A] Lehigh, that's when I realized I have to start being in the now, especially if I'm going to continue to play baseball," he said. "Baseball is not a sport where you can have your brain split in two different areas. You have to be 100 percent focused on the task at hand. I want to keep playing, no doubt. I know when I'm not dealing with these kinds of issues off the field, I'm a pretty good big league ballplayer. It's just rebooting the system this year and starting over."
His dad would have been proud.