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Padres family recalls 'luxury' of bond with Gwynn

Lifetime Friar remembered for boundless cheer by former teammates, execs

SEATTLE -- Replacing a legend is never easy, even if it's for one evening. Mark Sweeney discovered this in June 1997, two days after the Padres obtained him from the Cardinals.

On a sticky evening in Arlington, then-Padres manager Bruce Bochy opted to let future Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn give his aching knees a rest and serve as the designated hitter against the Rangers.

Sweeney got the start in right field -- the spot where No. 19 usually took up residence. Sweeney hadn't given that much thought that day. The fans in Arlington, however, certainly had.

"As soon as you get to right field, you start to realize the disappointment of the fans who wanted to see Tony in right field," Sweeney said. "I laugh at it now, but it's the truth. Those people had bought tickets expecting to see Tony, and then he's not coming out.

"You understood that. You knew that Tony meant a lot to those fans in San Diego, but you realized how much he meant to everyone else, too."

Sweeney, now a television broadcaster for the Padres, was among many with ties to the organization who paid their respects to Gwynn, who died early Monday following a long battle with salivary gland cancer. Gwynn, known as Mr. Padre, was 54.

"This is a tough one for us," said Padres manager Bud Black.

Gwynn, who spent each of his 20 seasons with the Padres, was elected into Baseball's Hall of Fame in 2007, his first year of eligibility. Gwynn's gaudy statistics -- his 3,141 career hits, .338 batting average, 15 All-Star Game appearances and eight batting titles -- made him a lock for baseball's shrine to greatness.

But for those fortunate enough to call Gwynn a teammate, those who shared a spot in the broadcast booth with him or just those in the Padres organization whose lives he touched, the prevailing emotion on Monday was much more about Gwynn the Hall of Fame person rather than the player.

"For more than a generation, the only thing more dependable in San Diego than sunshine was Tony Gwynn," said Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler in a statement.

Talk to anyone about Gwynn long enough and, inevitably, they'll mention his indelible laugh and the beaming smile that would wash across his face when he talked about his true loves -- family and the game of baseball.

"The first thing you think about with Tony is he's symbolic of what being a Padre is all about. When you think about Tony Gwynn, you think about the Padres. When you think about the Padres, you think about Tony Gwynn," said Padres hitting coach Phil Plantier, who was a teammate in 1993-95 and 1997.

"He was just the ultimate professional, on and off the field and just kind of did everything you hoped everyone will be -- business-like, professional, a mechanic with the bat, prepared."

But Gwynn wasn't always the effusive and personable type he later became with the Padres. Longtime Padres broadcaster Ted Leitner called Gwynn's basketball games at San Diego State in the late 1970s before teaming with Jerry Coleman to call so many of Gwynn's hits with the Padres.

"I told him this a lot in his final years as a player, but when he was playing basketball, I couldn't get two words out of him," Leitner said. "I joked that I had to bring my dental tools to get something out of him. I remember a game he won against UTEP on a last-second jumper. I interviewed him after the game, and it was, 'Yes, no, yes.' We laughed about that."

Leitner said on Monday that more than anything else, he got pleasure out of watching this "shy kid" mature as a man, become Mr. Padre, become so much to so many. Of course, watching Gwynn hit on a daily basis was pretty wonderful, too, Leitner said.

"What an incredible treat," Leitner said. "I would often tell myself, 'You'd better enjoy this. ... It's not going to last forever.' But you know what? It did, 20 years. I never saw anything else like it. Tony was the most singularly talented guy in all the sports I've ever [called]."

Blessed with quick hands and a keen eye, Gwynn certainly possessed plenty of natural talent. But that didn't stop him from tirelessly working on his game and, most notably, his swing. He was into video work before the industry embraced it. He saw it as a valuable tool, a necessity.

Former Padres closer Trevor Hoffman, a teammate from 1993-2001, marveled not so much at all of the results Gwynn compiled with that sweet left-handed swing but the process and preparation it took to produce such consistent success.

"It wasn't the average that stood out, but how hard he worked at his craft," Hoffman said. "The work in the video room, breaking down his swing, breaking down pitchers -- he understood what he was trying to do and then did it. This wasn't happenstance; he earned it.

"For me, it was fun to watch the greatest do it on a day-to-day basis. To see greatness on a daily basis was amazing."

And, at the root of it all, Gwynn truly was Mr. Padre. A homegrown member of the organization, Gwynn was drafted in the third round of the 1981 Draft and spent all of 158 games in the Minor Leagues before reaching San Diego in '82.

By the time Randy Smith took over as the general manager of the Padres in 1993, Gwynn was well on his way to 3,000 hits, having sufficiently terrorized National League pitching for years.

The front office ultimately made some unpleasant roster moves, like dealing away Gary Sheffield and Fred McGriff, among others. Smith often confided in Gwynn.

"We became very close at that time, talking about the team ... the direction we were trying to go," said Smith, who is now the Padres' vice president of player development and international scouting.

"He was a sounding board, a friend. His love of the Padres, the tough times we were going through, we had the same goals. He was a special person."

It didn't take long for Sweeney to realize this much -- and that had nothing to do with that day in Texas when he, temporarily, supplanted a legend.

"As a player, it's almost like you're a fan," Sweeney said. "I looked at it as an honor to be in the same uniform as Tony. This is a tough day, but when you have these great memories of him, that puts a smile on your face. It's a sad day, but what a luxury it was to play with him.

"He just came to the ballpark every day and loved to compete. He had an infectious smile, and his laugh was there every day. He was an unassuming guy, but he would beat you because of his consistency. That was something we all marveled at."

Black was actually a teammate of Gwynn's for one season at San Diego State in 1978. Like so many others, it wasn't the athletic ability or the knack of putting barrel to ball that made the greatest impression on Black -- it was Gwynn's personality, the smile and that laugh.

"I can remember on college bus rides, hearing Tony's laugh," Black said. "And I remember staying in a Hotel 6 in Provo, Utah, and being able to hear Tony's laugh six stories down."

Corey Brock is a reporter for Keep track of @FollowThePadres on Twitter.
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