SAN DIEGO - By now, Tony Gwynn is used to Stephen Strasburg usurping his celebrity. It happened all last year at San Diego State, when the autograph hounds peeled away from the Padres legend and Aztecs coach in favor of the pitching phenom. And all last year, Gwynn was asked more questions about his prized right-hander than about his team or his playing days combined.
So when Gwynn, who just coached the Aztecs in the Mountain West Conference championships (at Tony Gwynn Stadium), arrived at Petco Park (where a statue of him sits outside the stadium) to do color commentary for the Padres' TV broadcast on Friday afternoon, he had no qualms about becoming the conduit to Strasburg again.
Gwynn wears a media credential these days, and is more on the outside of the Strasburg circus than he has been at any point since the once-chubby freshman blossomed into a sensation in his program. Strasburg, he said, still texts players in his program, but the effervescent Hall of Famer joked that he and his coaches can't get through to Strasburg.
"One you get in the professional life, it's very difficult to take the time out and answer phones and texts. I guess guys felt like it was easier just to text him." Gwynn said. "Our coaching staff, we texted him a couple weeks ago, and we didn't get a response back. I think we all understood. But we're all keeping an eye on him, just like all the fans are. We're pulling for him, too."
He maintains an air of almost childlike curiosity about the whole process, eager as he was last year just to see how all of it - the spectacle, the debut, the start of one of the most highly-anticipated careers in recent memory - plays out. Once Strasburg left the program last year after helping San Diego State to its first NCAA Tournament since 1991, Gwynn knew the player's development was out of his hands. He limited his involvement to publicly hoping Strasburg would sign a deal before the Aug. 17 deadline, and has kept tabs on Strasburg's surge through the minor leagues this spring.
But Gwynn is also a member of the major-league fraternity, having proved every day for 20 seasons that he belonged in the majors and keenly aware of how great a test Strasburg has yet to begin.
"Really, your career doesn't start until you get here. We can say what we want about Triple-A and Double-A and all that," Gwynn said. "He will be judged by what happens once he gets here. And that's a good thing and a bad thing. All the hype that he's gotten, there's a segment out there that just wants to see him fail, because everybody's talked about it."
His advice to Strasburg? "Have fun," Gwynn said.
"I can remember a year ago - and all you guys probably thought the same thing - Scott Boras was his agent, you guys thought he was going to ask for $50 million dollars, and it was going to be the hardest sign in the world, and this guy is hype, and this and that," Gwynn said. "And then you got a chance to meet him, and you came away with a different impression, didn't you? Ha ha ha ha, I told you. I told you. I doubt very seriously that that changes. His mom and dad are great people. They've taught their son well. He's just got married this past winter. Believe me, this is what he's dreamed about, pitching in the big leagues. Getting drafted is just the first step. He wants to have the same kind of success at this level. Like all of us, we're waiting to see what's going to happen."