Tag: Tony Gwynn

MLB Announces Batting Awards to Be Named After Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew

Ahead of Tuesday’s MLB All-Star Game in San Diego, Major League Baseball announced its National League batting award will be named for Padres legend Tony Gwynn, while the American League accolade will be named for Rod Carew.

Padres.com’s Bill Center reported the news.

Gwynn posted a .338 batting average in his career, which spanned from 1982 to 2001. He died of salivary gland cancer at the age of 54 in June 2014.

A longtime Minnesota Twin who later played for the California Angels, Carew made 18 consecutive All-Star teams (1967-1984) and batted .328 in his career. Like Gwynn, he’s a member of the 3,000-hit club.

Renowned sports personality Keith Olbermann weighed in on the announcement:

Given the emphasis on spectacle and power in the modern era, Major League Baseball did well to recognize two throwback players.

The occasion is all the more special because the All-Star Game has returned to San Diego for the first time since 1992. Gwynn’s legacy has been a big focus of the festivities, and a museum in his honor opened in the city Saturday, per SB Nation’s Gaslamp Ball.

Batting titles have always been prestigious, but the achievement will take on a bit more significance because of the association with Gwynn and Carew.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Stephen Strasburg’s Father-Son Bond with Tony Gwynn Made Him an MLB Star

SAN DIEGO — The Master looked out at The Pupil. It was autumn, 2006, the first days of fall practice, and the incoming freshman class was finding its way, as ever, maturity not always matching exuberance. So there was work to be done. A lot of work.

What The Master saw as he scanned the horizon and focused on one freshman in particular was not future riches and stardom. Instead, what he noted was baby fat to be melted. Toughness to be instilled. What he saw was a lost ball in tall weeds.

It was a start.

The Pupil looked back at The Master, the view wholly different from the one he had when he was two. Or 12. He now was reporting directly to his boyhood idol. And he was not prepared for this thing called college, or college baseball or maybe even all that much in life. Not yet. Though he didn’t know it. Not quite.

Then came the weight room, the runningso much runningand soon, The Pupil was keeled over, gasping for breath, puking in the ice plant, heaving until he had nothing left to heave. Or give.

But over time, The Pupil would learn that he had far more to give than he ever knew.

The initial lows would yield to incredible highs. As if propelled by rocket fuel, once he launched, he zoomed straight up into the stratosphere. San Diego State closer, then ace. Beijing Olympics. One of the most hotly anticipated No. 1 overall picks in the country, ever.

The frenzy around them exploded into kaleidoscopic colors, and what The Master now began to see was a reflection of himself: an elite, no-nonsense player who hated to lose. One whose shyness made him uncomfortable in the fish-bowl environment of fame. One who eschewed flamboyance for substance and hard work.

As the outside worldmedia, agents, fans, gawkersclamored for its pound of flesh, The Master tapped the brakes, again and again, affording The Pupil a chance to breathe. “An artisan with the bat,” reads The Master’s Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown, but what he really was, in addition, was an artisan in humanity.

Today, when Stephen Strasburg speaks in reverential tones of the man who became his “second father,” the late San Diego State University coach and 20-year MLB veteran Tony Gwynn, these are the seeds from which one of the great baseball love stories of our time bloomed.

“It was eye-opening, because I had him so high up on a pedestal at that point,” Strasburg, who grew up in San Diego, tells B/R during an extended conversation last month. “I quickly realized he was one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met.

“He was Coach. That was the thing. It wasn’t like he was showing up every day telling the guys, ‘Wow, I did this and that.’ You could ask him, and he would share some really cool stories.

“But at that point in his life, when I was around him on a daily basis, he was Coach. He made a very big point of developing guys’ characters first, and then hopefully they became better ballplayers on the way as well.”

Soon, The Pupil would outgrow the confines of college. And when he married, The Master, who enjoyed formal occasions about as much as a fastball to the skull, knotted up a tie, took his wife’s hand and had a ball at the wedding.

Five months later, in June of 2010, the man who hated to fly even more than he hated formality boarded an airplane for a cross-country flight to be see the phenom’s MLB debut.

Now, as the All-Star Game returns to San Diego for the first time since 1992, The Pupil laces up his cleats for his second Midsummer Classic. And the tragedy is that The Master, whose legend looms over this game, this beautiful ballpark and this sparkling city, is not here to attend.

“With Muhammad Ali passing and being called ‘The Greatest,’ let me tell you, Tony Gwynn was ‘The Second Greatest,'” Kathleen Swett, Strasburg‘s mother, tells B/R.

“We loved him very much.”

Gwynn, of course, who became synonymous with San Diego during his career, died of cancer on June 16, 2014.

But in so many ways, both big and small, he will be with us at this 2016 All-Star Game.

Especially in the hearts of one particular All-Star and his family.

“Please excuse me if I start sounding like I’m crying a little bit,” Kathleen says over the telephone. “Forgive me for that. It goes way, way, way back to when Stephen was a toddler. He watched a lot of baseball on TV, and he would totally light up whenever Tony would come to bat.

“He’d have birthday parties and people would give him all of the Tony Gwynn gear, all sorts of that stuff.”

There is a picture that was taken at Strasburg‘s second birthday party. In it, he is wearing Tony Gwynn sweatbands, a Padres batting helmet and a toothy grin as wide as the 5.5 hole through which the Hall of Famer punched so many of his 3,141 career hits. Gwynn made that 5.5 hole, as he called it, famous: the opening between shortstop (position No. 6 if you’re keeping score) and third base (5). Thus, 5.5.

From the beginning for Strasburg, it was all about the man known as Mr. Padre.

The first time they met, Stephen was maybe eight or nine. His father had played high school basketball with the varsity basketball coach where Gwynn’s son, Tony Jr., was playing.

“My dad knew they were having a good season, and he knew the coach, so we went up there to a game,” Strasburg says. “We’re watching the game, and I look across and see Coach in the stands with his video recorder, recording his son’s game.

“So I went over there after the game and I asked for him to sign my ticket.”

When he wasn’t swinging a bat, video recorders and autographs were the currency in which Gwynn trafficked at that point in the late 1990s. The pioneer of the game’s video revolution, Gwynn used to lug his own videocassette recorder on road trips and record games from his hotel room television so he could study at-bats. Today, every major league club employs its own video personnel, and every clubhouse is stocked with computers for the players to view clips.

A couple of more years passed. Strasburg, now 10 or 11, was playing on a travel-ball team, and one of his teammates was Brett Bochy, son of the then-Padres (and now San Francisco Giants) manager.

When he was home and free, Bruce Bochy would sometimes visit with the team and offer coaching tips. But what was pure magic was when he would invite the travel squad to visit Qualcomm Stadium, where the Padres played before Petco Park opened. There, the kids were granted access to the raggedy old indoor batting cage that could be reached only by taking an elevator up one floor from the Padres’ clubhouse underneath the stands.

Sometimes, when the elevator door opened in the early afternoons, there was Gwynn, swinging away, all alone.

“We’d come in and we’d hear the crack of the bat and there’s Tony, hitting,” Strasburg says. “We’re all like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is awesome watching him hit.'”

On one lucky day, it got even better.

“He asked if we needed somebody to throw,” Strasburg says. “So he threw batting practice for us for almost an hour.”

Yet even with Gwynn taking over the San Diego State program in 2003 following his 2001 retirement, Strasburg was making other plans in high school.

“I worked really hard in school to get into Stanford,” Strasburg says. “There was a tournament in Nevada I was playing in and one of the Stanford recruiters was supposed to be there.

“I don’t think he showed up, and I had a really good game and Rusty Filter (then San Diego State’s pitching coach) was there and saw me and said, ‘We want to get you on a visit.'”

One of the most effective recruiting tactics SDSU employed at the time was using Gwynn as its closer. Once the recruiting process reached a certain point, if the Aztecs program was serious about a kid, Gwynn often would make a home visit and have dinner with the recruit and his family.

“But at that point, I just got back from Nevada and I was in school so it was like, ‘OK, we’ll just meet you there; we’ll do the visit at State,'” Strasburg says. “That’s where my mom and dad talked with him.”

Conversations and reality have a funny way, sometimes, of moving to places other than their expected destinations.

Strasburg was young for a high school graduate, just 17, and he came from a school that didn’t emphasize conditioning. He had zero experience with weight training.

Plus, there was this taco shop near the school, Estrada’s, and Stephen and his buddies were regulars. Strasburg loved the California burrito: carne asada, french fries, cheese, guacamole and salsa, all wrapped up inside a tortilla.

So you can imagine the shock awakening to college ball. As Strasburg struggled in the fall of 2006, there were serious questions regarding whether he was a keeper. Teammates tagged him “Slothburg.” He became acquainted with the nearby ice plant under stomach-churning circumstances.

As assistant coaches barked and teammates razzed, Coach Gwynn would sidle up to his new freshman pitcher and, in that high-pitched, cheerful voice filled with sunshine and optimism, quietly tease.

“What’s going on? Is this a little too tough for you?”

Talk about a complete college education.

“The high school I went to, you just showed up, played the game and went home,” Strasburg says. “Once I got to SDSU, that first week of conditioning, I could barely get through the stretches or the warm-up. I really, really struggled.

“It got better slowly, but it was a long grind.”

Strasburg can still hear the voice: What’s going on? Is this a little too tough for you?

“I think Coach had a good read on individuals,” Strasburg says. “Who needed a kick in the butt, who didn’t.

“I just needed to be shown the process and how to do it. That was one of the things I really learned from him when I got to college: OK, this is the work you’ve got to do, so now it’s your decision. Go do it.'”

At the semester break, Mark Martinez, the assistant who would be elevated to head coach when tragedy struck seven years later, saw him at a local LA Fitness gym every morning.

“What are you doing here?” Martinez asked, surprised, on that first day.

“The weight room’s closed over Christmas,” Strasburg explained. “I needed a place to work out.”

But here’s the twist: alternating schedules—Martinez worked out early and was finished by 6:30 a.m., and then his wife would come in for her workout. And every night, Coach Martinez’s wife would report that Strasburg was still there working when she’d left.

“At some point during the fall, he made a decision that he was going to be good,” Martinez says. “Nobody else made that decision for him.”

“That’s kind of how it was,” Strasburg says. “I did everything to a T. I wanted to do everything they asked me to do.

“Once I lost 30 pounds, I got a little stronger and my velocity started to come up. I always had a pretty good arm, but there was no process to make it better.”

That spring, about a week before the 2007 season started and with the back end of their bullpen still a work in progress, Gwynn and Martinez were talking following one practice, when in walked Filter.

“We’ve got our closer,” Filter announced.

“Who?” Gwynn asked.

“Stephen Strasburg.”

“No way! I don’t know if he’s ready for that.”

“You think closer, you think dynamic personality,” Martinez says today. “Stephen is very soft-spoken. He’s not very animated.”

Martinez remembers the debate lasting for about 20 minutes. He’s not ready to close! Give him a chance and let’s see! In the end, Gwynn was convinced; Strasburg got the ninth inning. As always, the freshman did his talking on the mound.

“I think what Coach did [showing faith in Strasburg to be the closer as a freshman] developed a trust between Stephen and Tony,” Martinez says. “And by the end of the year, he was getting some starts.”

The winter before Strasburg‘s sophomore season—the one that would help seal his position as the only college player invited to play among professionals on the U.S. Olympic team—Tony Gwynn Jr. stopped by his alma mater while preparing for the next season in Milwaukee’s organization.

“At this point, Stephen hadn’t even gotten on anybody’s radar yet,” says Gwynn Jr., 33, who retired last winter following a 13-year professional career and is doing postgame shows for Los Angeles Dodgers radio. “I was trying to get a head start on seeing live pitching; I think it was around November.

“Generally, I didn’t see live pitching until January, but my dad said, ‘Why don’t you hop in.’ I grab a bat, get in the box and Strassy punched me out on three pitches, real quick. I remember walking back to the bench thinking, ‘Who is this guy?’ As I did, I fish-eyed my dad, like, ‘Really?’ And he was already laughing about it. I knew he knew what was going on.”

Now in shape, Strasburg had gone from barely being able to bench-press 95 pounds and yet still throwing 92 mph to adding extra muscle and even more zip on his fastball. Now, it was creeping into the mid-90s, en route to 100.

His baseball curriculum was taking root, and in so many ways. As a coach, Gwynn was old-school, which meant even when the Aztecs won, there was still a right way and a wrong way to do things.

There was the walk-off win against Brigham Young, in which one of SDSU‘s players watched his game-winning homer just a wee bit too long. It was early in the season, the Aztecs were excited and, in the chaos of the celebratory locker room, Gwynn walked in and told them, “Good win, guys.”

But let’s remember something he added.

“He started to go on this talk about acting like you’ve done it before, respecting the game and winning with humility,” Strasburg says, smiling at the memory. “It wasn’t so much a talk as a shouting session.

“But he got so fired up because it meant so much to him, respecting the game, that he kicked the door to the clubhouse and it left this huge hole in the drywall. It was there for the rest of the year.

“We’re college kids, pretty immature; he could have let us do our thing. But it’s always a teaching moment. Even when we had such a good finish to a game, it’s still important to look big picture and instill some good character.”

Another time, during a game at Texas Christian University during his final year, Strasburg became incensed when a TCU batter singled through the hole near second base. And he seemed to become even angrier when his second baseman made a half-hearted dive in which he didn’t come close to nabbing the bouncer.

The kid who once could barely make it through conditioning drills now was so dominant that he became offended whenever anyone coaxed a base hit off of him.

“Stephen was pissed,” Martinez says. “So our catcher comes out to the mound and says, ‘Stephen, that was a base hit.’ So he got mad at our catcher. Then he walks into the dugout after the inning and Tony walks up and says, ‘You know, that was a base hit. You can’t defend that. Good for you for managing the rest of the inning, but it was a base hit.’

“It took a few minutes for steam to stop coming out of his ears.”

Strasburg‘s catcher in the game, Erik Castro, remembers that well.

“Stephen and Coach Gwynn obviously have something special as far as their talent,” says Castro, who reached the Triple-A level in the Astros organization in 2014 before retiring and remains one of Strasburg‘s closest friends. “Tony was one of the best ever, and Stephen obviously was turning into an elite pitcher in the game.

“Stephen didn’t know how to control his competitiveness. When he was 19, 20, 21 years old, he got fired up about everything. And Tony was teaching him how to be professional about things. On the field, you don’t say this or that to your teammates. That was a clear base hit. Just let that one go. Someone got a hit off of you, Stephen, it’s all right.”

It is one of the last of The Master’s lessons that The Pupil continues trying to, well, master even today.

“That’s something I’ve always struggled with. I don’t like giving up hits,” Strasburg says. “When he said that, it’s like, man, if I had [him] on my shoulder telling me that [during some professional games], I think I would have done better in some games, not letting little hits bother me.

“At the end of the day, it really comes down to what you’re going to do next. It’s funny you bring that up. I probably should have listened a little more. I was a little heated at the time.”

The chaos reached its peak during Strasburg‘s junior—and final—season at SDSU in 2009, following Beijing.

Aztecs home games became such carnivals that the school band and cheerleaders regularly performed, entertaining the standing-room-only crowds when folks got bored gawking at the hordes of professional scouts and media.

Everybody in the country knew he was about to become the nation’s No. 1 pick.

“It was ridiculous,” his mother Kathleen says. “Nuts. Crazy.

“It was this feeding frenzy, and one of the things I was thankful for was Coach Gwynn controlling all that so Stephen could do what he had to do.”

With two decades of MLB experience, eight batting titles, 15 All-Star selections and the Hall of Fame induction in 2007, Gwynn was something of an expert on feeding frenzies.

Quietly, he would pull Stephen aside and serve as a sounding board. They would talk baseball. Family. Friends. School. The future. He would ask about this and suggest that, often telling Strasburg, “This is how we’re going to do it, because I’ve been there and I know.”

“Tony never met with Stephen’s dad and I to say, ‘This is what’s going on,'” Kathleen says. “It was just between Stephen and Tony.

“I felt so blessed. Just to have that caliber of a human being in my son’s life, showing him the way and imparting such wisdom. Stephen still cherishes that time. What better can you have than that?”

They were special moments. And yet, much of what Gwynn was doing at the time was behind the scenes, even away from Strasburg. Making sure scouts spoke with him first. Filtering potential agents through his office before they even got to Strasburg.

“It’s really easy in college baseball when you have a horse, or somebody who’s going to be drafted really high, for the coaching staff to say, ‘This is our ticket, we’re going to ride this guy and hopefully win a lot of games,'” Strasburg says. “But I never had that sense from Coach.

“I was in a bubble, to be honest. It was refreshing because the message they sent to every single player, especially the pitching staff, was that they always reminded me that I was just another donkey.

“I wanted to go out there and be a donkey, just go and be that guy who does his job and gives the ball to the next guy. That’s the culture and mentality they tried to create, and I think they do a good job of that even now.”

The Master made sure The Pupil spoke with the right people, and weeded out the wrong ones. Played defense for him with the media. They would chat after practice. Before class. At the stadium. Before a big game. In the clubhouse. Nothing formal. Just lots and lots of little moments.

“Their personalities were very similar, and I think that’s why they gravitated toward each other,” Martinez says.

“I remember my father saying, ‘He gets it,'” Gwynn Jr. says. “I knew him and my dad were pretty close when my dad started to get irritated when Stephen had to deal with so many agents and media his last year. Stephen wasn’t comfortable.

“It reminded me of myself having to deal with it, and my dad feeling the same way. I knew then that they were pretty tight.”

Sometimes, on the way to school or on the way home from practice, Coach would stop by the office of his longtime agent, John Boggs, and fill him in.

“No question, Tony was very proud of Stephen,” Boggs says. “And I think it was because of the work ethic Stephen demonstrated.

“Tony’s main thing was hard work equals success, and Stephen worked very hard and Tony was very proud.

“‘Boggsy,’ Gwynn would say, ‘this kid is the real deal.'”

To Gwynn, there was no higher praise.

So it became official, this graduation from The Pupil into The Real Deal.

Strasburg hired superagent Scott Boras, was drafted first overall by the Washington Nationals in 2009 and signed for a $7.5 million bonus, part of a then-record-breaking four-year, $15.1 million deal.

One year later, on June 8, 2010, amid another feeding frenzy among media and fans on another coast, he made his major league debut against Pittsburgh. It was one of those few occasions when real life lives up to the hype: Strasburg fanned 14 Pirates in seven innings and came away with a 5-2 win.

Up in a suite at Nationals Park that day, right there with Strasburg‘s family, was Gwynn.

“When he agreed to fly to Washington for Stephen’s major league debut, man, that was telling right there,” Boggs says. “I’ve known Tony a long time, and one thing he hated to do more than anything was fly somewhere.”

“And he did all that for Stephen,” Kathleen says. “Bless his heart.”

“It was awesome,” Strasburg says. “He’s really like a part of the family. … They let him come down to the clubhouse before the game, and he’s on my pass list, and here it is, a Hall of Famer sitting with my family watching my debut.

“My family’s never going to forget that.”

Especially Uncle John. Part of a coterie of family members from Kathleen’s side who live in Virginia, Stephen’s great uncle (Kathleen’s uncle) had the good fortune to sit next to Gwynn in the suite that night.

“My uncle knows baseball, but he’s more familiar with football,” Kathleen says. “Tony was giving my uncle inside detail at every moment, and my uncle was just thrilled. I just wish I had a video of it.

“My uncle still talks about it, and he’s 85 now.”

Flanking Gwynn in the suite along with Uncle John was Brandon Ruddy, a former Aztec and one of Strasburg‘s closest friends.

“I still remember Coach saying, ‘Man, there’s more media here than when I played in the World Series,'” Ruddy says.

Today, there are still occasions when visitors to Stephen and Rachel Strasburg‘s home will check out the framed pictures throughout, come back to one in particular from their Jan. 9, 2010, wedding and exclaim:

“Is that Tony Gwynn?”

“To me, you want those you’re close with and those that you love to be there on such an important day of your life,” Strasburg says. “I mean, he was one of them.”

Says Boggs: “God, if he went to everybody’s wedding that he was invited to, it would have been a full-time job. And again, Tony wasn’t a big fan of celebrations, dinners, that kind of stuff. Even going to Stephen’s debut, that was something really out of the ordinary.

“But if you needed one act, that’s the act that explained what his feelings were about Stephen Strasburg.”

The spirit of Tony Gwynn will permeate this year’s All-Star Game because the spirit of Tony Gwynn permeates San Diego. Without him, there probably would be no Petco Park. Possibly, there would be no Padres.

It was only three months after Strasburg‘s debut, and just eight months after his wedding, when Gwynn, then 50, was diagnosed with cancer of a salivary gland. Shortly afterward, he had lymph nodes and tumors from the gland removed, and his battle started in earnest.

That Strasburg, Boggs and so many others still speak of Gwynn in the present tense is not unusual. Though it has been 25 months now since cancer took him, pictures, highlights, stories and memories throughout town keep him with us on so many days.

Just as Strasburg himself does when he frequently references Gwynn.

“Growing up, my parents got divorced when I was five or six, and I did all the baseball stuff with my dad,” Strasburg says. “And it was kind of like in high school, that’s when it started to become I’m on my own. And when I got to SDSU, that’s when Coach Gwynn was a father figure to all of the guys, grooming us to hopefully win some games on the baseball field, but also do the right things off the baseball field.”

Every so often, one of these “second father” quotes makes its way into the Gwynn family world, and though their ache will never fade away, it is momentarily dulled. Most recently, Strasburg did it again in May, at a news conference announcing his seven-year, $175 million extension with the Nationals.

“It makes me extremely happy,” Gwynn Jr. says. “It stirs up emotion, obviously, because he’s talking in the past tense, which reminds you of the situation we are in.

“But it brings so much happiness to know he had such an impact on life and is appreciated. And appreciated so publicly. I wouldn’t be mad if Stephen didn’t say anything publicly. I know from having conversations with Stephen how much he’s appreciated.

“But the fact that he does it publicly, and again when he signs that extension…how long has he been in the big leagues, seven years? Let’s put it this way: Seven years later, it would be easy for him to forget my father. Yet in one of the biggest moments of his life, other than getting married or the birth of his daughter (Raegan, 2), he still mentions my father’s name. And I appreciate it.

“He’s one of the guys carrying on my father’s legacy.”

There are pieces of Gwynn he carries forward with him today. One was visible last month when Strasburg visited a Washington elementary school library to help launch the D.C. Public Library’s summer reading program.

“I try to be the role model that he was,” Strasburg says. “There’s times where it’s tough to have that kind of engagement with fans because…this guy would sign autographs forever. I don’t think my patience is that good.

“His work ethic, I’ve always tried to think that way, how can I get better? One of the things he said to me was something his dad said to him: “Would you rather be batting .200 and having nobody talk to you, or would you rather be hitting .350 and having everybody talk to you?”

These words continue to roll around in his mind, often when things become difficult. Though the man he still calls “Coach” is no longer around, in some ways, Strasburg still can make the connection.

The last time he saw Gwynn was in the SDSU baseball office, just before Strasburg left for spring training in 2014. Though few knew it at the time, Gwynn was entering his final months.

“It was really hard seeing where he was,” Strasburg says quietly. “I just remember his spirits, he was so upbeat. Physically, you could tell he was really battling with it. But he was saying, ‘Yeah, I’ve got some stuff I’m going through but I just want to get back out there with the guys, back out there with the team.'”

Four months later, an off day in June and two days after Strasburg pitched in St. Louis, was when he got the word that Gwynn had died. The Nationals were at home, and when Strasburg picked up his phone, the jarring suddenness of his friend’s text knocked the wind from him.

“It was like, ‘Oh my God,'” Strasburg says. “It hit me. It hit me hard. I was speechless at the time, and I really don’t know what to say now. I remember I was standing right next to the bed. I think I went down to breakfast, then went back upstairs, looked at my phone and my heart just sank.”

How do you fill the gaps when you lose someone who is irreplaceable?

Sometimes, the best you can do is sign an autograph for one kid, read a book to another and keep firing answers to that long ago question The Master pitched to you: What’s going on? Is this a little too tough for you?

The time they had together, even today, Strasburg finds difficult to put into words. He has the memories and the wisdom, but very few physical items.

“I wish I did,” he says. “But when I played at SDSU, I was a little too nervous and I never asked him for an autograph.”

He has a few pictures, one signed ball from when he was a kid and his travel team visited Qualcomm Stadium, and, oh yes, one Tony Gwynn rookie baseball card.

“Saved up all of my allowance to buy it from this card shop,” Strasburg says. “I think it was 85 bucks at the time. So I saved up a lot of money for it.

“Those are my two big Tony Gwynn things, and they were from my childhood.”

Fitting, because beginning about the time The Pupil left him, The Master kept a piece of Strasburg‘s childhood right there in his own life, too.

It was shortly after Stephen’s final game at SDSU when Kathleen dug out that birthday-party picture, the one with her son rocking the Tony Gwynn sweatbands when he was 2, framed it and gave it to Gwynn.

“I didn’t want to give it to him any sooner because I didn’t want anybody to think I was trying to influence Coach Gwynn,” Kathleen says. “But I gave him that picture in a really neat frame, and he put it right on his desk.”

For years after, whenever someone new walked into his office, he would excitedly point to the frame.

“Guess who that is,” The Master would cackle.

Blank look after blank look would greet him. So he would grin, and then he would practically shriek the answer.

“It’s Strasburg!”


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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Chris Sale Says Tony Gwynn’s Death Motivated Him to Quit Chewing Tobacco

Tony Gwynn‘s death left a major impression on Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale.

Gwynn died in 2014 as a result of salivary gland cancer, a diagnosis he argued in part was due to a chewing tobacco habit.

Speaking ahead of the 2016 MLB All-Star Game, Sale explained why Gwynn’s death pushed him to stop using tobacco, per the San Diego Union-Tribune‘s Kirk Kenney:

He actually made a very big impact on my life. I chewed tobacco from 2007 until the day he passed away. I remember seeing that and just being so shocked. He was a larger than life person. He was an inspiration to the game for many, many people for a lot of different reasons. I quit that day and haven’t touched it since. In a sense I owe him a huge, “Thank you,” not only for myself but for my family. Hopefully, I can sway somebody in the right direction as well like he did for me.

Gwynn was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer in 2010 and continued to use smokeless tobacco.

“In his mind, he knew he couldn’t quit,” said Mike Howder, a video specialist who worked with Gwynn on the Padres, per USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale. “He was so about routine, and chewing tobacco was too about this routine. We both pretty much knew that with the baseball schedule, we weren’t going to quit.”

In May, Gwynn’s family filed a wrongful-death suit against tobacco manufacturers, per the New York TimesTyler Kepner:

There are no damages specified in the complaint, which asks for a jury trial on grounds of negligence, fraud and product liability. Essentially, the complaint says that Gwynn, while in college, was the victim of a scheme to get him, a rising star athlete, addicted to smokeless tobacco, while knowing the dangers it posed to him. The suit says that the industry was undergoing a determined effort at the time to market its products to African-Americans, and that Gwynn was a “marketing dream come true” for the defendants.

“Now that the family understands how he was targeted, they understand that the industry knew they had this highly carcinogenic product and they were marketing it to people like Tony,” said David S. Casey, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs. “They want to hold them accountable and let a jury make a decision as to what is proper in this case.”

Sale isn’t the first MLB player to quit tobacco in the aftermath of Gwynn’s death. Both Stephen Strasburg and Addison Reed, who played under Gwynn at San Diego State, gave up their habits in the summer of 2014.

Some cities have banned the use of smokeless tobacco at MLB stadiums, a law that extends to players. The league hasn’t prohibited players from using the substance. MLB has, however, mandated players can’t have tobacco in their mouths while they’re giving on-air interviews, nor are they allowed to have tobacco tins or cans in their back pockets during games.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

10 Ways MLB Has Drastically Changed in the 20 Years Since the 1994 Strike

Baseball has changed in all sorts of ways since the MLB strike in 1994. 

The game is now an absurdly lucrative business both for the players and the owners. Over the past two decades, a number of teams have moved to new stadiums, and new technologies have transformed the way that fans follow their favorite clubs.

On the diamond, it’s still the same game, but nobody has come close to accomplishing what Tony Gwynn did in the summer of 1994. 

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MLB: Tony Gwynn’s Death and Chewing Tobacco in Baseball

Major League Baseball mourned an all-time great player and person on June 16 when San Diego Padres icon Tony Gwynn died. More than a week has gone by and Gwynn’s death is still impacting others around baseball, particularly those who use smokeless or chewing tobacco.

Gwynn was just 54 when he died following a tumultuous battle with parotid (mouth) cancer. While multiple factors could have contributed to his cancer, Gwynn was always adamant that a chewing tobacco habit that he kept up long after his playing days was the the culprit.

Back in 2010, Gwynn told Bill Center of U-T San Diego that chew was to blame following his original diagnosis. “I haven’t discussed that with the doctors yet, but I’m thinking it’s related to dipping,” Gwynn said.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Gwynn’s suspicions made sense.

Chewing tobacco and snuff contain 28 carcinogens (cancer–causing agents). Smokeless tobacco increases the risk for cancer of the oral cavity, which can include cancer of the lip, tongue, cheeks, gums, and the floor and roof of the mouth. Other effects include oral leukoplakia (white mouth lesions that can become cancerous), gum disease, and gum recession (when the gum pulls away from the teeth). Possible increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, and reproductive problems are being studied.

The American Cancer Society lists smokeless tobacco as a cause of mouth, tongue, cheek, gum and throat cancer as well.

For decades, Gwynn put pinches, even handfuls of tobacco in his mouth day after day. He started every game of his career by putting a wad in his mouth. This year, a habit picked up while playing rookie ball in 1981 finally caught up with him.

While it may be too late for Mr. Padre, the Hall of Famer’s death has had a positive impact on at least two present day big leaguers.

In the days since Gwynn’s death, Washington’s Stephen Strasburg and Arizona’s Addison Reed, who both played under Gwynn at San Diego State University, announced they would cease their own dipping habits. 

According to ESPN, Reed threw out several chewing tobacco tins in the locker room following the death of his former college coach. He explained how his use came about: 

It’s one of those things where I’ve done it for so long it’s just become a habit, a really bad habit. It was something I always told myself I would quit, like next month, and the next thing you know it’s been six or seven years.

It started to get bad my first year in pro ball and it’s one of those things where I’ve always done it. I’d come to the field and throw one in and have multiple ones. I’d have one on the ride home, one on the way to the field and it was one of those things where I always had one with me.

Strasburg cited his family as an additional reason to give up using, according to Bill Ladson of MLB.com.

I think it’s a disgusting habit, looking back on it. I was pretty naive when I started. Just doing it here and there, I didn’t think it was going to be such an addiction. Bottom line is, I want to be around for my family. This is something that can affect people the rest of your life. [Chewing tobacco is] so prevalent in this game. It’s something we all kind of grew up doing.

Hopefully this is a trend that continues in the majors. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported that an MLB survey found that smokeless tobacco use among players is down to 33 percent. It was at 50 percent 20 years ago.

However, Heyman also reported that MLB’s efforts to ban tobacco products in the game all together failed at the last collective bargaining agreement talks:

MLB pushed for a ban at the bargaining table at the last CBA talks, and while only one-third of MLB players still use the stuff, it was said to be one of the last things to resolve on the table. A ban realistically never had much hope.

MLB is said by people involved in the talks to actually have ‘pushed very hard’ for the banning of smokeless tobacco in those discussions, with the players’ union pushing back just as hard to keep it legal in the game. The union, driven on this issue by its players, ultimately won the point, though some rule refinements were intended to lessen usage and the harm caused by it.

With a nod to the concept of MLB players as role models, the players did agree to a program to promote quitting, to keep usage discreet and to mandate spring mouth screenings. But smokeless tobacco, while banned at the minor-league level, remains legal in the majors, provided the can or tin isn’t visible. If it is visible, warnings and finings were laid out.

While it may not be the result the league was hoping for, this program is a good one. With the players union dead set against a ban, keeping the tins out of the spotlight is the next best thing. These players are indeed role models, so when kids see them dipping and spitting, they want to get in on it, too. Far too many young ballplayers have picked up the habit without realizing the potential damage they were doing.

It was in eighth grade when I first noticed my teammates dipping. Think about that. That is a 13-year-old kid on an addictive substance. Naturally, the number of players around me packing continued to grow as the years went by and we got older. Throughout years of high school and travel ball, I was one of only a few not to touch the stuff. At the very least, almost everyone tried it.

I asked a lot of my teammates why they dipped over the years. Some liked the buzz while others just did it because it was used so frequently around them. However, one answer always stood out to me.

“Its a baseball thing” was something I heard over and over again. I always wanted to argue against that idea, but it was true.

No baseball organization has showcased this “thing” more than Major League Baseball. It has become part of the game’s culture, and that is not good. Kids see pros chewing and spitting and they want to try it.

The problem is they do not realize the harm they are doing, the fact that these substances are addictive. Forget that it is a disgusting habit as Strasburg said, it takes years off your life! There is no other reason for a professional athlete to be dead at 54.

In the wake of Gwynn’s death, it is good to see that a few guys have realized the dangers of their tobacco use. The league has already tried to rid baseball of tobacco products. Hopefully players, at all levels, begin to do their part.


What are your thoughts on chewing tobacco in baseball? Feel free to comment below or follow me on Twitter @GPhillips2727 to talk anything baseball.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Los Angeles Dodgers: A Look at Marcus Thames and the Blue Crew Outfield

With their most recent acquisition of outfielder Marcus Thames, the Los Angeles Dodgers not only achieved an addition of power to the roster, but they also balanced the bats in the process. Thames will join a solid corps of outfielders who individually feature power, speed, and reliable defense.

Some fans across Dodgertown have very high hopes for 2011, yet many factors will come into play that determine the level of success during the upcoming campaign. Team chemistry, attitude, and coaching are just several aspects of the game which need polished in order for the Dodgers to be contenders.

Other fans are focusing their attention on the long haul, and based on the high level of talent on the farm, envision a bright future for the Boys in Blue during the years to come.

The outfield is just one of several areas that’s packed full of potential—both from the veterans and the future stars. Spring training will play a large role in determining who plays where and which players see the bulk of action this season. Depending on injuries and the level of production from certain players, a number of new faces may be making their Dodger debuts.

In no particular order, the following slides showcase the top 10 outfielders in the entire Los Angeles Dodgers organization and offer a bit of commentary on each player. Also included is a special bonus slide which features an additional 10 players in the system who range from Single-A farmhands up to several outfielders who have numerous years of MLB experience.

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