Stephen Strasburg will never forget so many things about Tony Gwynn, and one of them is the first day he set foot on the campus of San Diego State. Strasburg grew up a Padres fan in San Diego, and Gwynn “was like a god to me,” he said. His freshman year, before he had thrown a single pitch, Gwynn approached him. “I’m going in the Hall of Fame this year,” Gwynn told Strasburg. “But I’m just your coach.”
Tuesday afternoon in front of his locker in the Nationals clubhouse, Strasburg both held back tears and smiled as he told the story. Monday morning, Gwynn died at 54 after a years-long bout with cancer in his cheek and salivary gland. Strasburg learned the news when he woke up Monday. It crushed him.
“This is a guy who put other people before himself,” Strasburg said. “There’s so many things I’m never going to forget. He’s impacted so many players over the years. I’m so blessed to be one of them.”
Gwynn had a huge impact on Strasburg’s career. When he arrived at SDSU to play for Gwynn, Strasburg was an undrafted, overlooked high school pitcher who struggled to keep his composure. After two seasons, he was viewed as a can’t-miss prospect, the obvious No. 1 choice in the MLB draft.
But Gwynn’s impact went beyond baseball. “It started with just how to be a man, how to handle the ups and downs,” Strasburg said. “Not everything goes your way in life, and certainly not in this game. I think that’s one of the things from a personal perspective, I struggled with that. He really helped me understand that it’s not necessarily the results. It’s the work you put in every single day. That’s what matters at the end of the day.”
The relationship between Strasburg and Gwynn lasted after his college career closed. Gwynn traveled to Washington for Strasburg’s debut and watched the 14-strikeout masterpiece in a suite with Strasburg’s family.
“It’s funny,” Strasburg said. “I’ve got family a couple hours down south in Virginia. I was talking to my great uncle. He’s not doing great health-wise. But we’re sitting there talking, and he’s like, ‘That was so cool sitting there watching the game, to have Tony Gwynn sitting there next to me, telling me everything about what you were doing out there.’ Coach, he became part of my family as well. He wasn’t going to miss that. It was such a special experience for my family specifically, to be there watching my debut with this legend back in San Diego.”
Not long after the 2010 season, Gwynn was diagnosed with cancer. Gwynn believed years of smokeless tobacco use gave him cancer, but doctors never confirmed that suspicion. Strasburg has tried to quit his own use of smokeless tobacco in the past. Tuesday afternoon, he requested that reporters not ask questions about smokeless tobacco.
During batting practice for pitchers, Strasburg chewed gum and blew large, pink bubbles. Over the past few years, Strasburg tried his best to keep in touch with Gwynn, who wanted to keep his battle as private as he could, to avoid making people feel sorry for him. “It became pretty tough here the last couple years with the health issues and everything,” Strasburg said. “Whenever we would come into San Diego, I’d make sure to try to stop by and say hello. I’d come by a lot in the offseason. This last offseason was probably the least I was able to see him.”
Strasburg never imagined hearing the news Monday the way he did. Tony Gwynn, after all, was like a god, someone not meant to pass away so soon. “It’s definitely a blow,” Strasburg said. .”It was tough waking up yesterday on the off day and getting the news. I’ve been saying some prayers for the Gwynn family and all the people back in San Diego who are mourning this loss as well.”