Numbers a minor part of Gwynn

Remembering 'Mr. Padre,' 'Mr. San Diego'

Bill Center, longtime sportswriter for U-T San Diego, is an employee of the Padres.

As we remember Tony Gwynn on the second anniversary of his passing, it's time to also celebrate the fact that the light he cast on the people of San Diego still glows brightly.

Before every Padres home game, I take a moment to glance at Gwynn's statue atop the knoll at Petco Park to remind me of the importance of this icon to me, the Padres and all of San Diego.

To me, the statue is among the more significant features of Petco Park. I'm not alone. People pause at the monument daily, and Thursday night, the Padres will unveil a new lighting system to better illuminate the tribute to Mr. Padre.

Gwynn was the greatest player to wear the Padres uniform. The way he played the game rightfully earned him a spot among baseball's elite in the Hall of Fame. It takes pages in the record book to cover the numbers he compiled over two decades as a Padre.

I think those numbers are important. Look them up, please. Every San Diegan should know what put Gwynn on the national map.

But to me, the legacy of Gwynn cannot be defined by numbers. That might be the foundation. But it is not the monument itself.

Many springs ago on a hot afternoon in Yuma, the coach of a Little League team in El Centro had borrowed a school bus to bring his team to Arizona to see a Spring Training game. They were not there to specifically see Gwynn, but to fulfill a dream to see two Major League teams.

The bus broke down as the team was preparing to head home.

As Gwynn was leaving the parking lot of Desert Sun Stadium some 90 minutes after the end of the game, he spotted the coach and his players outside the bus as the driver made repairs.

He stopped. Then flagged me down as I was about to drive by, handing me two $50 bills.

"There's a store around the corner," he told me. "We're going to need drinks and snacks … no ice cream, that'd be a mess."

As I left, Tony was driving across the parking lot toward the bus. When I got back, he was sitting under a tree with the kids. He had found a jersey top in the back of his car and put it on despite the sweltering heat. He had come up with some balls and other assorted items and was signing them and talking with the kids.

I was helping pass out the drinks and snacks when the coach approached me.

"Is that the real Tony Gwynn?" he asked.

When I responded in the affirmative, the coach said. "Blow me away."

About 40 minutes later, the bus fired up. As the kids piled back on, Gwynn shook every little hand. As the coach climbed into the bus, he looked back and said, "God bless you, Mr. Gwynn."

Gwynn's response: "It's Tony."

As the bus pulled away, Gwynn turned to me and said through that laugh of his: "Time for us to pick up the trash."

That's the Tony Gwynn I remember above all the numbers.

Recently someone asked me how Tony Gwynn became such a beloved figure in San Diego. In reflection, I think I offered a pretty good answer: "One kid at a time."

I was with Gwynn years ago as he was signing autographs along the right-field stands at Qualcomm Stadium. There had been stories that week about how much professional athletes were making on the side from signing autographs at professional shows.

"Man, my autograph is worth nothing," he joked. "I've signed so many things that the value has dropped out of any market there might be."

And he was proud of the fact.

As he signed, Gwynn spied a man seeking to get Gwynn to sign several items that could be sold for a profit. Gwynn politely dodged the pro. He signed for every kid, until he came across a brother and a sister with no ball or paper to sign.

He reached for the ball that he usually kept in his back pocket for such situations. No ball.

So he turned to professional autograph seeker and said: "I'll tell you what. You give me two of those pictures, and I'll sign a dozen."

He signed those two pictures for the kids, then kept his word with the pro.

Gwynn is still among us San Diegans. May he live forever. I'm pretty sure he will.