MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Gwynn Jr. reflective on anniversary of father's death

Gwynn Jr. reflective on anniversary of father's death

NEW YORK -- Tony Gwynn Sr. died a year ago today and there still lingers a hole of sadness in the hearts of all who knew and loved him.

Behind Petco Park in San Diego -- adjacent to a statue erected in Gwynn's honor -- a local college baseball tournament, bearing his name, will be introduced today. It will launch in February.

University of San Diego and San Diego State are the hosts. State is where Gwynn played his college baseball and -- after a 20-year Hall of Fame career with the Padres -- where he coached. Gwynn died on this date last year after a three-year struggle with salivary gland cancer. He was 54, and the tournament was one of his last projects.

In Syracuse, N.Y., on Tuesday night, Tony Gwynn Jr. will remember his father while at the same time trying to keep his mind on the job at hand. The younger Gwynn, now 32, is trying to stave off the ultimate end of his baseball career with the Triple-A club of the Nationals. He's hitting .236.

"When I had such a hard time with it last year, I realized that I have to live each day in the moment," he recently told MLB.com. "The more I looked back and tried to move forward, I realized that it's too hard to do this job and do it any other way.

"When his birthday came [May 9], on that day and on the day before, it was tough. Those two days were extremely tough for me. I think my teammates could attest to that. The days following, I tried to focus on what I had to do baseball-wise. It's just too complicated and too difficult to split your brain between those kinds of thoughts -- dealing with my father and doing the job that you want to do."

Gwynn Jr. expected to experience similar emotions this week as thoughts inevitably turned again to his dad. It was Father's Day last year when Gwynn Jr., playing for the Phillies, knew his father was in dire shape. The Phillies gave him the option to go home to San Diego. He called his mom, Alicia, who told him to stay and do his job. That's the way his dad would have wanted it.

Gwynn Jr. called his dad on the big day and was advised that he couldn't come to the phone.

"I told my mom to just wish him a happy Father's Day and that we'd talk some other time when he could talk," Gwynn Jr. recalled. "And I never got that chance. He passed the next day."

After the funeral, Gwynn Jr. returned to the Phillies. On June 24 at Citizens Bank Park, he was sent up to pinch-hit with two out and nobody on in the bottom of the eighth inning. He received a standing ovation from the crowd of 24,860. On July 28, the Phillies released him. He was hitting .163 at the time. He was given a reprieve of sorts when the Phillies re-signed him and sent him to the Minor Leagues.

His father won eight National League batting titles, had a lifetime batting average of .338 and accumulated 3,141 hits. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, along with Cal Ripken Jr., in 2007. Gwynn Jr. played for his father at State and talked to him almost every day.

Before becoming ill, Gwynn worked incessantly with his son, to retool his swing. No matter. Gwynn Jr. is a .238 lifetime hitter with 381 hits in parts of eight big-league seasons for four teams.

Last winter he returned home to San Diego, trying to decide what to do. He realized very quickly he owed it to himself to take another whack at baseball.

"I had some time to grieve during the offseason, but at some point you've got to get back into your workouts and begin focusing on baseball," Gwynn Jr. said. "I mean, I had a little bit of time to cope with it, but you only really have time when you're not doing anything at all. You have so little time to sit down and relax because baseball has a timeline. During the offseason, that only lasts a couple of months before you have to start kicking it in.

"For me, living in San Diego, there are constant reminders of him. I don't know if I've had a full chance to grieve, but I've had time. It gets easier every day. But you're still going to go through your first year with him gone. The anniversary of him passing, birthdays will always be popping up."

The Phillies didn't ask him back, so he spent the offseason looking for a job. He received tentative offers from the A's and Nationals. He chose Washington, a week into Spring Training, because the club was beset by outfield injuries.

Gwynn arrived at camp in Viera, Fla., exhausted. But he had a terrific spring, batting .375. Even so, on March 30, the Nationals picked up a pair of outfielders: Reed Johnson, after he was placed on waivers by the Marlins, and Matt den Dekker in a trade with the Mets. Gwynn Jr. was not on the 40-man roster. He was sent back to the Minors.

"The demotion was extremely disappointing," he said. "But that's the name of the game sometimes. You get invited a week into camp and you go out and you do everything you possibly could do and more, but then they make moves. I knew what was up. I prepared myself for it. I always go into those situations expecting the worst, regardless, so it's not too much of a burden.

"I'm a human being, and at the end of the day, no matter how much you think you've prepared yourself for it, it hurts."

Gwynn Jr. batted .157 in April. Then he tweaked his left hamstring and missed five games in May.

He returned on May 22 hitting .214, but then went on a tear of sorts, hitting safely in eight out of nine games. And after collecting 13 hits from June 2-9, his average had climbed to a season-high .254. Still, the Nationals recalled the .234-hitting den Dekker. Gwynn Jr. has gone 2-for-23 in his past six games.

Though he said he hasn't made any decision about leaving the game after this season, Gwynn Jr. admits that he's now considering life after baseball. He's having his fourth child and first boy by the end of the month and realizes its time for alternate plans.

"Oh, absolutely," he said. "I have things I want to do that I've already started movement on life-after-baseball stuff."

Broadcasting? That's a possibility, he said. His father did baseball analysis for ESPN and on Padres broadcasts.

"I think I'd be pretty good, too," Gwynn Jr. said with that characteristic Gwynn cackle.

Gwynn Jr. laughs like his dad and has his high-pitched voice, too. He says he hears that a lot from people. Close your eyes and for a moment, just a moment -- a year later there is just a tiny bit of solace in that.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.