Gwynn's legacy off the field remembered

Gwynn's legacy off the field remembered

SAN DIEGO -- Tony Gwynn's legendary swing is immortalized beyond right-center field at Petco Park, his perfect stroke from the left-handed batters' box cutting through the strike zone belt-high.

At the recent Celebrate San Diego rally, lines of fans formed around the likeness of Gwynn, and multiple parents posed for pictures with their children in front of it. As if on cue, they knelt and talked into their kids' ears, while motioning toward the larger-than-life statue.

It's possible those parents were telling the next generation about Gwynn's eight batting titles -- tied for the second most in history. They also may have been rehashing Gwynn's lifetime .338 batting average or his 3,141 hits.

But at a rally for the city of San Diego, they could just as easily have been talking about Gwynn's immense impact in the community, which is prevalent to this day. In San Diego, there's never a bad time to reflect on the legacy of Gwynn, who passed away in June 2014 at age 54. And there probably isn't a more important time to do so than during Black History Month.

"He took just as much pride in being a part of San Diego off the field," said Tony Gwynn Jr., who played eight seasons in the Major Leagues, including two with the Padres. "Obviously my dad was a student of the game of baseball. He enjoyed it very much. But I think he also enjoyed being a human being and looking out for people. ... My dad enjoyed watching happiness become a reality in people's lives."

Tony Gwynn standing next to a statue of himself at Petco Park in 2007.AP

Gwynn Sr. certainly backed that notion with his actions. Upon his father's passing, Gwynn Jr. recalled hearing stories of his generosity. He pointed to one tale of Gwynn buying a car for a clubhouse attendant. He heard another -- this one unverified -- where Gwynn paid for the travel of an underpriveleged fan to watch him play.

In a city that hadn't seen much baseball success until his arrival, Gwynn gave back in the form of two National League pennants and countless personal accolades. Those achievements are consistently recognized across the baseball landscape -- most recently when the award given to the NL batting champion was named after Gwynn at the All-Star Game.

But Mr. Padre also gave back through the Tony and Alicia Gwynn Foundation -- which provided financial and educational resources to underserved members of San Diego. And he gave back through his involvement in the San Diego School of Baseball. Gwynn never took being a black role model in the community lightly.

"It meant a lot," Gwynn Jr. said. "Coming from Los Angeles, Jackie Robinson being the face of black ballplayers, that really resonated with my dad."

Gwynn Jr. recalled the 1994 All-Star Game, when his father eagerly introduced him to legendary Negro Leagues first baseman and manager Buck O'Neil. Then 11 years old, Gwynn Jr. was understandably giddy to be meeting a baseball icon. So he made a point to dig into O'Neil's story.

"That's what kind of opened my eyes to black ballplayers and what they had to go through at that time," Gwynn Jr. said of his encounter with O'Neil. "Getting the opportunity to meet Buck O'Neil, I'll be able to tell my kids that and share his memory and his legacy with them for a long, long time."

In San Diego, it's virtually impossible to avoid Gwynn's legacy. Tony Gwynn Drive runs through the East Village. And a five-mile stretch of Interstate 15 is dubbed the Tony Gwynn Memorial Freeway.

At San Diego State -- where Gwynn played both baseball and basketball in college -- the baseball facility is in its 20th year as Tony Gwynn Stadium. This offseason, Gwynn was inducted into the California Hall of Fame.

Hoffman at Celebrate SD Rally

At Saturday's rally, Trevor Hoffman, another San Diego staple, noted that it's impossible to celebrate San Diego without celebrating Gwynn himself. When Hoffman took the stage, he merely needed to point in the direction of the statue to prompt a raucous ovation from the 12,000 fans in attendance, who chanted "To-ny, To-ny."

Nearly three years after his death, Gwynn remains as beloved a sports figure in San Diego as any athlete in any city across the country.

"His legacy has only grown," Hoffman said. "He certainly is missed on a daily basis within our organization. For the stature that he held, he was Mr. Padre and he was Mr. San Diego. He's somebody you don't replace, you just appreciate the time we had to watch him."

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.