When Tony Gwynn spoke up
June, 17, 2014
By Buster Olney | ESPN.com
AP Photo/Michael S. GreenTony Gwynn wasn't just outspoken as a player, he was as a doting father.Memories of Tony Gwynn kept welling up Monday, as the reality of his death sunk in. He was one of the best hitters ever, yes -- he hit over .300 in his last 19 seasons, which is unfathomable -- and he was such a good person, as borne out by the overwhelming response to the news.
But there were a lot of sides to Gwynn. He was gregarious, yes, but he also had strong opinions and was unafraid in expressing them; he mentioned to me many times that he believed he had earned the right to speak his mind. And he did.
If only the rest of the industry had been as outspoken as Gwynn about the issues of performance-enhancing drugs. With just about everybody in the sport remaining quiet, Gwynn was talking about this in the mid-'90s. He went on the record with Bob Nightengale for a Los Angeles Times story -- in 1995:
From Bob’s story:
Said Padre all-star right fielder Tony Gwynn, "It's like the big secret we're not supposed to talk about, but believe me, we wonder just like the rest of people. I'm standing out there in the outfield when a guy comes up, and I'm thinking, 'Hey, I wonder if this guy is on steroids.'
"I think we all have our suspicions who's on the stuff, but unless someone comes out and admits to it, who'll ever know for sure?"
To repeat: That was 1995.
By then, Gwynn had won five batting titles and had finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting five times, and he had scored the winning run in the 1994 All-Star Game. Because he and Frank Thomas and a very small handful of people in the game spoke out, nobody can whitewash history and pretend that this problem sneaked up on the sport.
Gwynn would tell stories about going into the weight room of the early '90s Oakland Athletics -- the Athletics of Jose Canseco -- and being stunned by the charts detailing how much each player was lifting in his weight work.
In 2003, when I was working for the New York Times, Gwynn was blunt in what he saw as the high impact of amphetamines in baseball.
From that story:
"People might think there is a steroid problem in baseball, but it's nowhere near the other problem; the other, it's a rampant problem," said Tony Gwynn, the former San Diego Padres outfielder who estimated that 50 percent of position players regularly use amphetamines, commonly called greenies.
Even so, players appear to be much more tolerant about the use of amphetamines than of steroids, recent interviews with players and executives indicate. Gwynn said, "Guys feel like steroids are cheating and greenies aren't."
More, about a move among the White Sox's younger players to push for testing:
One White Sox player said some teammates felt nervous discussing their debate because union officials had implied that if the boycott went forward, the players association would ostracize them.
[Tom] Glavine denied that anyone had been threatened. "All I can tell you is the program we came up with that was inevitably enacted was a combination of everything -- a combination of guys wanting a lot, of guys not wanting anything -- trying to get somewhere in the middle," he said. "The program that we actually came up with was actually stronger than the initial proposals that were drawn up."
But Gwynn, when asked why players have not pushed the union harder for more aggressive drug testing, said: "They're scared to say something, they're scared to be looked upon by the union as something other than a conformist. No one wants to be in that position, it's a tough position to be in. I think players think, 'I know I'm clean and I want testing,' but as far as the group and going to the union guys for more testing, they're not going to do that.
"The young players aren't going to say something, because they're young and trying to get established, and the old guys are like, 'I just want my pension; I don't want to do anything messing with my pension.' The guys in the middle are like, 'Let somebody else worry about it.'"
And more from Gwynn:
Gwynn told a story to illustrate his sense of how desperate some players are to improve their performance. When San Diego was on the road during one of Gwynn's final seasons, he walked into a visitors clubhouse and found the floor littered with amphetamines.
"There were a bunch of pills lying all over the floor," he said. "There had been another team in there just before us, and evidently, they'd left these greenies behind. Our guys were like, 'Hey, wait, wait, don't throw those out.'"
Gwynn seemed to know everybody, and he treated everybody the same, whether it be a clubhouse attendant or a reporter or another player; he once mentioned to me that his father insisted his children be respectful to others, and Tony learned well.
Tyler Kepner mentioned this in his story about Gwynn:
I was a teenager when I first interviewed Gwynn, working for a small magazine I published from home. This was not Sports Illustrated or ESPN. He had no special reason to be nice. But every time the Padres came to town, Gwynn would greet me warmly.
He noticed things others would not. One time we spoke, I was wearing a Vanderbilt golf shirt. Gwynn noticed the logo and asked if I went there. When I said yes, he lit up. The Padres beat writer Buster Olney, of The San Diego Union-Tribune, also went there, Gwynn said excitedly. “You’ve got to meet him!” he said.
Pause for a moment to consider how rare this is. Few players would bother to notice a detail on a reporter’s shirt. Few would know which college the team’s beat writer had attended. Fewer still would then offer, with genuine enthusiasm, to play matchmaker.
But that was Gwynn. When our interview ended, he went back to the clubhouse, found Olney and brought him to the dugout to meet me. A few years later Olney was writing for The New York Times, and he recommended me for a job. Gwynn had set me on my career path.
Yep. This was Tony. Only Tony would do something like that.
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesTony Gwynn was a great hitter, but also won five Gold Gloves on defense.
Because he was such a great hitter, I don't think he got as much credit as he might have for his baserunning -- he stole 56 bases in a season, and 319 in his career -- or for his defense. Standing flat-footed, Gwynn didn't have a particularly strong arm, but he perfected his use of his body in building momentum into his throws, especially as he chased down balls close to the right-field foul line. He was awarded a Gold Glove in five seasons in his career.
Ozzie Smith told Rick Hummel: Gwynn was just as proud of his defense.
When I covered the Padres, Gwynn’s son was around Jack Murphy Stadium a lot -- a quiet 10-year-old but always on the move, clambering around the clubhouse, playing around on the field. Years later, he reached the big leagues, and he was referred to as Tony Gwynn Jr.
But the first time I saw him in a clubhouse after he reached the big leagues, when he was with the Brewers, I apologized. I had to call him Anthony, I told him, because that's what his dad always called him.
More on Gwynn
• The Phillies hung Tony Gwynn Jr.'s jersey in their dugout Monday night.
• Tony Gwynn was a father figure to Stephen Strasburg, as Adam Kilgore writes.
• The Orioles' Adam Jones grew up in San Diego and was recruited by Gwynn for San Diego State.
• Barry Bonds -- who had a close friendship with Gwynn -- learned the news about Gwynn from Nightengale, and was hurt.
• Paul Molitor remembered him as an innovator.
• The Mariners paid tribute to Gwynn Monday.
• Fans visited Gwynn’s statue.
• The Royals hammered Justin Verlander Monday night in the first game of a three-game series between the division rivals, and reduced Detroit's lead to a half-game.