On Tuesday, MLB Network will premiere an hour-long documentary about San Diego Padres legend and Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who died at 54 in 2014 after a four-year battle with salivary gland cancer. “Mr. Padre” includes interviews with Gwynn’s family, former teammates and opponents. It also features commentary from Nationals pitcher and San Diego native Stephen Strasburg, who grew up idolizing Gwynn and later played for him at San Diego State.
“As a young kid, I wanted to be just like Tony Gwynn,” Strasburg says in the latest installment of the MLB Network Presents series, which airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET. “I wanted to be a professional baseball player, I wanted to play for the Padres. Tony always made extra effort to be a role model.”
In the documentary, Strasburg describes a photo from one of his first birthday parties that shows just how big a Gwynn fan he was from an early age.
“I remember this birthday specifically because that was the big highlight for that birthday was getting the Tony Gwynn poster and the Tony Gwynn wristbands with his face on there,” Strasburg says. “I was decked out. The impact it had on me is priceless.”
Strasburg’s mother gave a copy of the photo to Gwynn, who kept it on the shelf behind his desk at San Diego State, where he managed for 12 seasons after his playing career ended in 2001. Strasburg was recruited by Yale, Harvard and Stanford, but he decided to remain close to home to play for Gwynn after throwing seven complete games and finishing with a 1.68 ERA as a senior at West Hills High in the San Diego suburb of Santee.
“When I got there and I saw my childhood idol, he kind of halfheartedly said, ‘You know, you guys got to get over it. It’s not Tony Gwynn or Mr. Padre, it’s Coach Gwynn,’ ” Strasburg recalls. “It wasn’t like I was coming in as a top prospect, I wasn’t on any prospect sheets. I thought I bit off more than I could chew. I remember Tony just kind of pulling me aside. I was definitely, like, shocked. This is Tony Gwynn, this is a guy I watched on the TV my whole life. To get that encouragement from him was huge. If it wasn’t for Coach Gwynn, would I have gone on to get drafted my junior year and yadda yadda yadda? Probably not. He was like a second father to me.”
Strasburg was the Aztecs’ closer for much of his freshman season and earned second-team all-Mountain West Conference honors. He blossomed as a starter during his sophomore year and went 13-1 with a 1.32 ERA as a junior, including a no-hitter in the final home start of his college career. The Nationals selected Strasburg with the No. 1 pick in the 2009 MLB draft. Gwynn watched Strasburg’s 14-strikeout major league debut in a suite with Strasburg’s family.
“This is a guy who put other people before himself,” Strasburg said after Gwynn’s death in 2014. “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.”
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