The outpouring of condolences and stories of prowess seen in the wake of Tony Gwynn’s passing yesterday were befitting of the man who embodied so much of what was and still is right with the game of baseball.
A tireless worker with a fatherly physique that ran counter to many of his contemporaries and to his talent, Gwynn was the ultimate ambassador of the game. That was the case despite Gwynn playing for a San Diego Padres team often mired in mediocrity and often forgotten in terms of national attention, playing in the proverbial shadows of their National League West foes a two-hour drive north on Interstate 5.
Despite the limelight shining upon him without much regularity, he became a giant of the sport and was an in-absentia coach for many kids. He was a guiding hand, setting the example that hard work and meticulous attention to your craft can pay dividends on and off the field. This passion and dedication to baseball -- in particular, hitting -- treated Gwynn well, culminating in 3,141 hits and Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Spending over 20 years as a player before moving on to coaching endeavors at San Diego State University, it isn’t much of a surprise that Gwynn’s impact on baseball would include the Nationals or their preceding organization, the Montreal Expos.
The first player to collect his 3,000th hit on foreign soil, Gwynn left his indelible mark on history against Expos pitcher Dan Smith on Aug. 9, 1999. More recently and specific to the Nationals, Gwynn coached Stephen Strasburg collegiately at San Diego State, being a “father figure” to the San Diegan. Gwynn also was a linchpin in Strasburg’s development, being both a calming presence for the temperamental but talented hurler, while also keeping tabs on the health of his once-in-a-lifetime arm - something unheard of in the college game.
Beyond Strasburg, the legacy of Gwynn can be seen in the Nationals clubhouse, in the form of newly minted left fielder Ryan Zimmerman. Quietly toiling in anonymity for years on some pretty forgettable teams, Zimmerman in many respects embodies the personality of Gwynn the player and Gwynn the person. The face of an oft-maligned franchise who infrequently captures the attention of the nation despite consistently well above-average play, Zimmerman, much like Gwynn, has taken his place in the organization and in the community seriously. Zimmerman embraces his opportunity to represent his team and baseball by leading by example, tirelessly honing his craft, maximizing his opportunities and time in the game, in spite of the wear and tear of the innings played, making such things a less-than-trivial endeavor.
Dedicated to his team and selfless in his desire to contribute to a win, Zimmerman and his willingness to do whatever work it takes to improve himself and his team -- even when that work requires significant sacrifice -- is an endearing, albeit increasingly rare, characteristic. That is a characteristic that also marked Gwynn’s career, beyond the impeccable play.
Despite a lack of direct lineage to Gwynn, it is players like Zimmerman who will carry the torch of extraordinary talent paired with the extraordinary work ethic and dedication that Gwynn epitomized. While the numbers will more than likely pale in comparison to Gwynn’s when his days as a player are done, the myriad tacit qualities provided by Zimmerman will ensure the tenets of Gwynn’s success as a baseball player and person will live on in the game.
Stuart Wallace blogs about the Nationals at District Sports Page. Follow him on Twitter: @TClippardsSpecs. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.