Tony Gwynn awoke on Valentine’s Day after undergoing 14 hours of surgery to remove a malignant growth from his right cheek. Earlier this week, he described how he felt when he opened his eyes.
“Great,” he said. “I felt great.”
That’s how Gwynn greeted the world after enduring cancer surgery. Yes, really. He refuses to complain, making sure to announce he’s thrilled to be alive and coaching baseball at San Diego State.
“I’m just happy to be here,” Gwynn said. “And I’m happy to be back at work.”
On Friday, one of the game’s finest ambassadors will be watching from the dugout at Air Force’s Falcon Field as his Aztecs begin a three-game weekend series. This is Gwynn’s first road trip of the 2012 season.
Gwynn crafted a steady yet sensational career during his 20 seasons with San Diego Padres, collecting 3,141 hits and .338 career average. He hit over .350 six times, finished with more than 200 hits five times, including 220 when he was 37 years old. He won the National League batting crown eight times. He was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007.
When his playing career ended, Gwynn considered plenty of options, all enticing. The most tempting option might have been to spend the rest of his life counting his money and relaxing at his home in San Diego.
He instead chose to return to his alma mater to coach baseball.
Many of his baseball friends were aghast. Why, they kept asking, do you want to coach college-age baseball players? He didn’t need the money. And, his friends said, he didn’t need the frustration.
The answer was – and is – an easy one for Gwynn. He enjoys teaching the game. This is not a given. Many of the game’s greats struggle when it comes to instructing mere mortals. The greats often fail to understand the concept of struggle. After enjoying a sports life of constant conquering, they can’t comprehend failure.
Gwynn is different. He finds joy in reaching out to his youthful players.
When he returned to SDSU in 2002, he heard the whispers. Tony Gwynn, the doubters said, would only stay a couple of seasons. The doubters wondered if Gwynn had only taken the job to work with his son, Tony Gwynn Jr., who now plays left field for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The doubters were wrong.
“I’m still here,” Gwynn said. “It’s been 10 seasons. Hard to believe.”
His lone complaint is the lack of victories. Gwynn and the Aztecs finished 41-23 in 2009 and 19-9 in Mountain West competition in 2004, but those are the highlights. Overall, Gwynn is 283-300 with a 19-23 record this season.
“I wish,” he said, “we had more wins.”
But the struggles have not drained his commitment or enjoyment. Gwynn savors the detours of his job. Players often stop by his office to talk about an endless variety of topics.
“Oh, you know,” Gwynn said, “school, girlfriends, family, living in the dorms, gas prices. I’m helping these young men become men, and that’s always intriguing to me.”
He’s struggled to fully return to his job. On Monday, Gwynn worked several hours in his various roles as the Aztecs’ coach, and it exhausted him. He once was tireless. Now, he admits, he often grows weary.
But he feels stronger every day. He remains committed to his vision. He wants to build a national power at his alma mater.
Sometimes, freshman players start talking to Gwynn about all his accomplishments. They talk about the batting titles, the big money he earned, his lofty reputation in Southern California.
Gwynn listens patiently, but always makes sure to end the conversation with his announcement.
“You can’t get caught up in the fact I played in the big leagues,” he says. “That has nothing to do with what we’re trying to do here.”