In an era marked by nefarious scandals, including point-shaving debacles, illicit pay-offs, recruiting arms races and academic dishonesty, the world of collegiate athletics has dwindled to a race to the bottom, leaving many student-athletes around the country susceptible to influential figureheads with ulterior and unchecked, politically driven motivations.
Fear not my fellow idealists, Tony Gwynn is coming to town.
Gwynn, probably the greatest hitter of our generation, played college ball with San Diego State before his celebrated career with the San Diego Padres. The future unanimous first-ballot hall-of-famer hoarded a .338 lifetime batting average in 20 major league seasons with one organization, will lead his team onto the diamond on Friday afternoon at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium but won’t even reach the outfield, where he amassed five National League gold gloves with the Padres.
In fact, the member of the illustrious 3,000-hit club won’t even make it out of the dugout against the Gauchos. (Unless, that is, a glaringly bug-eyed Gwynn scurries out to home plate to entertain the umpire to a two-time shuffle or throws his cap, incessantly stomping away his aggression to spur on a late-game rally.) When the San Diego State baseball team takes the field against Santa Barbara during this weekend’s three-game series, Gwynn will be in uniform – but as the Aztecs’ skipper.
“All in all, I’m having the time of my life,” Gwynn said. “I love baseball, I love what I do, I love being a part of this university.”
Gwynn is a consummate professional in every aspect of the language. He is one of the nice guys in a sport where stars are generally egotistical and driven by the fame and fortune of having millions of dollars fall into your lap.
When I was 10 years old, I sent a letter to Jack Murphy Stadium, home of the Padres and Tony Gywnn, my favorite baseball player. Plain and simple, I was merely an ordinary, starry-eyed kid trying to get an autograph of a baseball legend. After just two weeks of sending my only prized Tops Ultra baseball card, I got a letter back in the mail with his signature engrained over the glossy card surface. Ten years later, I remember that day like it was yesterday.
During the 2001 season, Gwynn’s final campaign, the 41-year old managed to hobble his way into just 71 games, missing nearly half of the year to injury. But later that season, on a certain relentlessly scorching Sunday afternoon in July, Tony Gwynn made his heroic return from the disabled list. I drove three hours to sit in the crummy outfield nosebleeds and catch a glimpse of Mr. San Diego himself for the last time. Gwynn came on in the seventh inning and, pinch hitting, crushed a monster into the gap and over the wall for a run-scoring ground-rule double.
The moment was fitting. .
The play characterized Gwynn’s professionalism and character perfectly. There was no swagger, no triumphant hoopla, no bling-bling, no adjusting the crotch or dip spitting; just a selfless ballplayer doing his job and doing it well.
When Tony Gwynn took over as head coach of SDSU this season, many wondered why he chose to end his retirement.
“I know it sounds crazy, but when you’ve played major league baseball, I guess people have this vision of you hitting golf balls on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach or something,” Gwynn said. “I’m a worker. I’m not a guy who sits around and lounges.”
Gwynn’s genuine charisma is the exact foundation that college athletics should build for their programs and administrations. In an unforgiving drought of morality and fairness in the NCAA, Gwynn can be the purifying water to quench the thirst for justice. Student-athletes need other role models than the glitz and glamor of high-profile millionaire juiced-up chumps.
“There’s a lot of responsibility to this job,” Gwynn said. “It’s about teaching them the game, teaching them how to do things, trying to prepare them for life, making them go to class, making them go to their tutors.”
While not all people are athletes, all athletes are people and Tony Gwynn just happens to be one of the best out there.