In May 2010, Tony Gwynn laughed when he pointed to the picture, which rested on a shelf behind his desk inside the head baseball coach’s office at San Diego State. Stephen Strasburg’s mother had given it to Gwynn as a gift, a sign of her family’s deep appreciation for him. It showed Strasburg as a boy, about 4 years old, posing in front of a Tony Gwynn poster, wearing a San Diego State t-shirt, a Padres helmet and wristbands placed just so, just like his idol.
Gwynn, the best hitter of his generation, died Monday at age 54 after a bout with cancer inside his salivary gland. He smacked 3,141 hits, walked nearly twice as much as he struck out, stole 319 bases, made 15 all-star games, won five Gold Gloves and entered the Hall of Fame the first year he was on the ballot. Gwynn’s artistic batting stroke and jovial personality helped countless San Diegans fall in love with baseball. Stephen Strasburg was one of them.
Unlike so many of them, Strasburg received the surreal opportunity to play for Gwynn. After Gwynn’s induction to the Hall of Fame, his beloved status and the money he made in his playing career allowed him to do anything he chose. He decided he would coach the baseball team at San Diego State, his alma mater. Strasburg flashed potential in high school, but poor physical condition and an uneven temper kept colleges away. Two schools offered him a scholarship. He turned down Yale to play for his idol at his hometown school.
Without Gwynn, there would be no Stephen Strasburg as the baseball world knows him. “A father figure,” Strasburg has called Gwynn. In two seasons at SDSU, Strasburg morphed from an overlooked, undrafted high school player to the most anticipated pitching prospect ever. Strasburg credited Gwynn for molding him into a professional competitor and for protecting his arm. Many college coaches ride their ace pitchers to the detriment of their arms. Gwynn never pushed Strasburg for too many pitches, never endangered his career.
The attention Strasburg began to receive at the end of his college career surprised him and shook him. He was naturally shy, and he had never confronted anything close to the hype coming at him. Gwynn confided that he, too, was shy and hated the attention he received at first. Gywnn passed along to Strasburg the advice his father once gave him: “Would you rather hit .200 and nobody care, or be the best and take on the attention?”
Gwynn and Strasburg forged a lasting relationship. Gwynn counseled Strasburg on how to handle professional baseball, on and away from the diamond. Gwynn traveled to Nationals Park for Strasburg’s big league debut in June 2010, and he watched the game from a suite with Strasburg’s family. In the winter of 2011, Gwynn attended Strasburg’s charity run to benefit the SDSU baseball program, one of his the first public appearances he made after his cancer diagnosis. Even after Strasburg left campus, his impact remained at San Diego State.
“Every day for us, his impact is still felt,” Gwynn said in 2010. “I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that us as a staff and each of the players who were here when he was here don’t think about him.”
Gwynn believed years of chewing tobacco use caused his cancers, although doctors told him that was not necessarily the case. Leading up to the 2011 season, Strasburg quit using smokeless tobacco. Strasburg has since started using “dip” again, a sign of how destructively addictive the product is.
“I was one of those kids that picked it up based on seeing ballplayers do it,” Strasburg said in 2011. “It’s not a good thing, and I don’t want to represent myself like that.”
Even if he never played for him, Gwynn still would have made an impact on Strasburg, the same effect he had on so many young Padres fans. Anyone could appreciate Gwynn’s beautiful swing and his infectious smile. But Strasburg not only got to enjoy watching Gwynn as a big leaguer, he also got to let Gwynn turn him into one.