Monday, August 31, 2015

Tony Gwynn was a Hall of Famer in many ways

(AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
(AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
(AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi) Gallery: Tony Gwynn was a Hall of Famer in many ways

Some days leave an imprint so deep they can never be forgotten. Thirty minutes alone in the home dugout at Jack Murphy Stadium with Tony Gwynn Sr. qualifies as one of those days.

As approachable as your best friend, Gwynn agreed on an April day in 1992 to do an interview about John Kruk. The two men shared a body type that defied their elite athleticism, and each had the ability to hit laser-like line drives with a baseball bat.

Baseball, in this reporter's opinion, lost one of its best human beings ever when Gwynn died at the age of 54 Monday from oral cancer. That's what makes this loss a lot more devastating than just losing a great player.

Gwynn and Kruk had entered the professional ranks together in 1981 in Walla Walla, Wash., site of the San Diego Padres' single-A affiliate in the Northwestern League.

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  • Gwynn, a third-round pick out of San Diego State in 1981, was about to rocket through the Padres' farm system on his way to eight batting titles and a Hall of Fame career that included two trips to the World Series.

    Kruk, a third-round pick by the Padres in the secondary phase of the 1981 draft, would take quite a bit longer to get to the show and would not truly blossom in the big leagues until after he joined the Phillies in the middle of the 1989 season.

    The two men spent parts of four seasons together on the Padres' big-league roster, and Gwynn already had won three batting titles and was on his way to another the year Kruk was traded to the Phillies with Randy Ready for Chris James.

    In April 1992, it was Kruk who was leading the league in hitting, which by itself was a huge accomplishment in a league that included Tony Gwynn. But Kruk wasn't just leading the league; he also was batting over .400 through the first month of the season. His average sat at .411 through 20 games when Gwynn agreed to talk to a 28-year-old Phillies beat reporter.

    Before the conversation started, Gwynn had a question for the reporter. He said he had seen some photographs of Kruk's first wife, Jamie, and he wanted to know whether she was blind.

    "He's way out over his skis," Gwynn quipped in that high-pitched voice that was as recognizable as his home-plate artistry.

    The interview eventually got around to Kruk's ability to hit the baseball, and the man who did it better than anybody else in his era was quite complimentary when talking about his former teammate. You could tell the two men had a strong bond that was not broken by their separation.

    It would be great to have the tape of that interview or even a newspaper archive because the quotes were that thoughtful, that sensational. The story, intended for a Sunday publication, never ran.

    Two days after the interview, the Phillies were in Dodger Stadium when four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the Rodney King case. The city became a war zone and the 28-year-old Phillies beat reporter became the Courier-Post's Los Angeles Riot correspondent. Some more days that left a deep imprint followed, and there was always some regret that the Gwynn-on-Kruk story never was written.

    Gwynn, of course, had a lot of baseball left in him after 1992, while Kruk's impressive career flickered fast. Gwynn won four more batting titles, reached the 3,000-hit plateau, and played in his second World Series.

    For this reporter, there were plenty more encounters with Gwynn. There was no better road stop in baseball than San Diego for three reasons: the weather was always perfect, watching Gwynn hit was like watching Picasso paint, and talking to Gwynn was more enjoyable than talking to any other baseball player on the planet.

    When Gwynn stepped to the plate, you made sure you were watching, a rarity for a player who was not a slugger. There was no place to pitch him because he was capable of hitting the ball wherever it was pitched. Good luck trying to strike him out. He struck out only 434 times in 10,232 plate appearances.

    As great a player as he was, it was his engaging personality that separated him from so many others. Jim Thome and Dale Murphy make the short list of superstar baseball players who also were Hall of Fame human beings, but Gwynn was more cerebral and engaging than both of them.

    You often can tell how good a man is by how well his children turn out. Even though Tony Gwynn Jr., who is in his first season with the Phillies, didn't inherit his father's talent, it's obvious he was well schooled on how to be a quality person.


    Inquirer Columnist
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