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Seeing Gwynn play worth a trip across country

When the National League schedules annually provided two excursions to the West Coast, men of a certain age and certain journalism responsibilities made the cross-country trek to cover games in California with a powerful sense of anticipation. We knew what nine or 10 days on the coast might provide. We might get to kibitz with the great Vin Scully before and after games in LA. If we were so fortunate, we'd come away somehow feeling more sophisticated. Days spent in San Francisco, the best city we visited, meant some fine dining and chances to chat with Willie Mays or Willie McCovey or Hank Greenwald, the Bay Area's Scully.

And when San Diego was on the itinerary, two must stops were on my agenda -- visit with Jerry Coleman, who was as fine a gentlemen as could be found in the Golden State and, no matter what else was on the to-do list, visit the Padres' clubhouse and spend time, some quality time, over there in the corner with Tony Gwynn.

Some members of the media that followed the Mets in those days would find the attractions of Mexico or La Jolla too strong. They might get to the park a tad later than they would in another city. But I never was tempted to sample the other side of the boarder or Beach Boys territory. I wanted every available moment to be spent at the park, visiting with Coleman and Gwynn and gathering good vibrations.

I'd come away from the two visits happier then when I arrived and without a trace of jet lag. Coleman, the man who led an extraordinary life, and Gwynn who was creating an extraordinary baseball resume, would fill my notebook and my memory and put some bounce in my step. Each was a booster shot of joy and energy.

And now, the available moments and those two wonderful men are gone, taken from us -- Coleman in early January by the same forces that cause all of us to wrinkle, slouch and lose physical and mental elasticity after 70 years on the planet, and Gwynn early Monday by a disease that doesn't wait for its victims to become octogenarians.

He was 54 when he fell victim to cancer of the salivary gland, a problem brought on by his use of smokeless tobacco. As Garagiola has told us for decades, smokeless and harmless are not synonymous. Spit it out.

* * * *

Folks in San Diego and its satellite communities will understand if the overcast that happens each morning brings a few drops the next week or so. Count them as tears. Coleman was an enormous loss; Gwynn's passing does more than pick at the scab. It is another deep wound, probably deeper. Tony Gwynn was as San Diego as Lou Gehrig was New York. No city, no game, no one should endure two such losses in so brief a period.

The Padres should fly both the flags and the pennants representing the championships Gwynn's teams won at half mast for as long as they want.

We've mourned Coleman, the Yankees' second baseman, the Padres' voice and the courageous pilot for half a year already, but he had a life that lasted nearly 90 years. Now, Gwynn is to be mourned by folks all over, not merely those with Padres allegiance. And he didn't reach 60. Merely 30 years ago, he, Garvey, Wiggins, Bevacqua, Goose and the others had the Padres in the World Series. And Tony's gone? He was due more years to celebrate and revel in all he accomplished.

Cursed tobacco. Just a pinch was/is too much.

* * * *

I recall the '84 series, more because of Tigers than because of the Padres. Fourteen years later, the Yankees were invincible World Series opponents, and Gwynn's team was beaten again, swept. But I recall so much about Tony and that lopsided event, how well he handled the disappointment and how much he enjoyed playing the Yankees.

The day before Game 1, Gwynn arrived at that Yankee Stadium with his teammates, but he didn't accompany them to the visiting clubhouse. He walked instead, with his son Tony, to Monument Park to immerse himself in all the Yankees had been to that point. He and his son took it in and appreciated what they saw.

By that point, Gwynn's preference to play his entire career with the Padres was widely known. But he certainly could recognize what other franchises had to offer. "I know you're not leaving San Diego," I said to him after his moments with the monuments. "But if you had to play for another club?"

He wasn't biting. His connections to San Diego were too strong for him to deal with the hypothetical. As we walked to the clubhouse, he reveled in the notion of being in the World Series against the franchise that has its footprints all over the World Series basepaths. He allowed only this much -- "If they could move this place and that voice [Yankee Stadium PA announcer Bob Sheppard] out there where I play, yeah, maybe," he said. "Maybe for a month."

Twenty minutes later, he acknowledged being a tad more tempted after he recognized the proximity of the right field stands. "Maybe I could hit a few more here," he said. The following night in Game 1, Tony Gwynn hit his lone home run in nine World Series games. It was one of the eight hits he had in 16 at-bats against the Yankees. It produced a 4-2 lead for the Padres.

"It was a thrill," he said after the Yankees' 9-6 victory.

"A great thrill," he said smiling the following summer. "But I'll stay where I am."

I wish he had.

Marty Noble is a reporter for

San Diego Padres