Baseball great Tony Gwynn left a mark in the Pikes Peak region

June 16, 2014 Updated: June 17, 2014 at 9:40 am

The night before Brett Tomko first faced Tony Gwynn, a local titan for a fellow San Diego native, he sought advice from teammates on how to pitch to one of the all-time great hitters.

Tomko, now a Sky Sox pitcher, was in his rookie season with Cincinnati at the time in 1997.

"Pete Harnish told me to throw the ball right down the middle," Tomko said. "I was like, 'Come on, really?' He said, 'Tony is such a good hitter that people pitch around him all the time. I literally throw the ball right down the middle to surprise him.' That's what I did, I threw the ball right down the middle."

Gwynn went 0-for-4 that day, a rarity for the baseball legend who died Monday at 54 after a long battle with cancer.

Tomko remembers that day vividly. He eventually joined the Padres and benefited from Gwynn's knowledge. They later moved to the same street and became familiar faces to each other.

Tomko is just one of many in Colorado Springs to have personal experiences with Gwynn, and those memories haven't faded.

"Some of those guys you face, like a Rickey Henderson or Mark McGwire or Tony Gwynn, they almost don't seem real," Tomko said. "They're like mythical characters or movie characters."

Sky Sox manager Glenallen Hill played 43 games against Gwynn in the major leagues. But it was during the 1994-95 strike that Hill, also a native of Southern California, got to know the future Hall of Famer when they worked out together at a San Diego junior college.

"Tony is, and was, everything people thought he was in terms of his knowledge and his preparation and just his dedication to baseball," Hill said. "He left us far too young."

The local connections to Gwynn are far reaching.

Gwynn took over as coach at San Diego State in 2002 and served until his death, though he took medical leave in March. He was with the Aztecs when one of his prized recruits, eventual top MLB draft pick Stephen Strasburg, struck out 17 in a no-hitter against Air Force.

The Colorado Springs-based Mountain West expressed its sorrow on social media early in the day.

"The #MW expresses its deepest condolences to San Diego State, the Gwynn family on the loss of Aztec student-athlete & coach, Tony Gwynn," the conference said via its Twitter feed.

Wasson graduate Rich "Goose" Gossage played with Gwynn for four years in San Diego from 1984-87. The teammates helped the Padres to the 1984 World Series.

In 1982 Gwynn played for the Hawaiian Islanders, the team that later moved to Colorado Springs and became the Sky Sox. Gwynn batted .328 in 93 games that season, which was one year after current owner Dave Elmore had purchased the club.

Gwynn batted .379 against the Rockies, his highest figure against a team which he had at least 40 at-bats. He went 37 of 103 (.359) in games at Mile High Stadium and Coors Field.

His final game came Oct. 7, 2001, going 0 for 1 as a pinch-hitter in a 14-5 Rockies victory at San Diego.

"It's a sad day for baseball," Tomko said.

Air Force baseball coach Mike Kaslausky, who went against Gwynn in conference games, issued this statement:

“I am very sad to learn of Coach Gwynn’s passing.  I know his family and friends are in pain, as is our entire baseball community.  My best memories of Coach were sitting in the dugout prior to our games just sharing stories about living life and spending time with our family and friends.  I know when I think of Tony, I will always think of his infectious laugh!  I believe at times we can really get caught up in competing and winning, but Coach really understood what was most important.  Speaking for his Air Force friends and competitors alike, he will be greatly missed."

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