The scar on the left side of Tony Gwynn’s face, dipping onto his neck, is a long one, but subtle in its narrowness and partially hidden when he wears a shirt with a collar, sport jacket and tie, but he doesn’t forget about it.
Only a few months ago one of the greatest hitters in Major League history was wondering if he would be able to speak in public again, as he was doing on a recent morning in Cooperstown in connection with a Baseball Hall of Fame event, if he would be able to coach his San Diego State University team, or if he would be around for his wife and family.
In February, Gwynn, who was an avid tobacco chewer during his two decades with the San Diego Padres, had surgery to remove a malignant tumor inside his right cheek. Doctors spent 14 hours on an operation that transplanted a nerve into Gwynn’s face from his right shoulder. Gwynn missed a chunk of his college team’s season while recuperating, but rejoined the team in plenty of time to guide the Aztecs through the last stretch of the year and the Mountain West Conference playoffs.
Gwynn, who won eight National League batting titles, was out-of-shape heavy, not emaciated as one might picture following a major operation. He didn’t look hitter-ready to add to his 3,141 hits, but he looked walking-around ready for anything and Gwynn is grateful for that. He is 52, with graying hair, but doesn’t look aged. Gwynn’s always had a somewhat high-pitched voice and that hasn’t changed either.
“I’m doing really good,” Gwynn said of his health progress since the surgery that scared his fans and supporters. “Believe me, I’m happy to be here.”
As a person and player the only ones who didn’t want to see Gwynn around were opposing pitchers. In a 20-year career Gwynn equalled Honus Wagner for the most NL batting championships won and he is likely baseball’s greatest living hitter.
Gwynn had been chosen to represent Major League baseball at the unveiling of four new U.S. postage stamps honoring four of his co-members of the Hall of Fame, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Larry Doby and Willie Stargell. His daughter, Anisha Nicole, sang the National Anthem to kick off the event in the Hall’s Grandstand Theatre.
The ex-Padre developed a relationship with Williams based on mutual respect and a joint interest in hitting in the late stages of Williams’ life and one can only imagine how juicy those sessions would have been to evesdrop on for students of the game. Williams, who won six American League batting crowns and hit 521 home runs by being so selective about the pitches he swung at took an interest in Gwynn.
“He was always giving me some advice to make me a better player,” Gwynn said.
Gwynn coaches his alma mater, for which he also played college basketball, and does some summer-time broadcast work. He is still getting back to full-stength from his ordea, but he is optimistic about bouncing back completely. Gazing at the four colorful stamps of some of his fellow members in the elite club of the Hall of Fame, Gwynn said, “I hope one day they make a decision that I’m worthy to be on a stamp.”
Few people make such proclamations, but considering the context of the moment with four late Hall of Famers actually having that honor bestowed on them, Gwynn’s thought did not seem out of place. He also quickly re-focused.
“Right now I’m glad to be standing here,” Gwynn said.
It was a heartfelt sentiment and the way everyone else within hearing range felt, too.
Topics: Baseball Hall Of Fame, Cooperstown, Gwynn Surgery, Honus Wagner, Joe DiMaggio, Larry Doby, Mountain West Conference, National Anthem, National League, San Diego Padres, San Diego State, Ted Williams, Tony Gwynn, Willie Stargell. Anisha Nicole