ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Adam Jones received a phone call early this morning with the news he had been dreading. Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn passed away after a courageous battle with salivary gland cancer, the disease taking him at age 54.
The call came from Gwynn’s son-in law, former Orioles farmhand Kennard Jones, who played at Single-A Frederick in 2007 and Double-A Bowie in 2008.
All of baseball is mourning Gwynn’s loss today, but it especially hits close to home for Adam Jones, a San Diego native who grew close to the former Padres outfielder over the years.
“I knew him most of my adult life,” Jones said. “It’s tough when someone passes like that, especially the impact he’s had not only on myself, but countless major leaguers and just people in general in the San Diego community.
“It’s tough, it’s life and you relish every moment, relish every moment of your life.”
Gwynn, who later served as baseball coach at San Diego State, became a mentor to Jones.
“He reached out to me,” Jones said. “He asked me to come up and work out with him in the offseason, work out with his team, and the group of guys that are up there. We’ve been going strong for 10 years. We’re there every offseason, and this was the first offseason he wasn’t there every day because he was fighting his fight.
“It was weird not seeing him every single day when you went up there to hit. He’d just sit in the cage and (talk). That’s the part that not many people will ever get to know of him. I brought my friends over there that don’t play baseball. They know of him and they said this guy’s one of the best people they’ve been around just because of what they knew, but to actually see the man behind the numbers and all that stuff, that’s the remarkable part.
“He’s Mr. Padre. He’s Mr. San Diego. I think his family, what they’ve done in the inner city of the community in San Diego, what they do with baseball with the RBI foundation, with him coaching up at State. He gives back to the community. Never was a guy that wanted all the fame and praise. Could have left San Diego years into his... He knew San Diego was his home and it shows he was a man of many talents. He was a knowledgeable guy. I learned a lot about not just baseball, but about life, how to be a man in this industry, how to take it all with a grain of salt.”
The best advice Gwynn offered him?
“You don’t want nobody talking (crap) about you, don’t be good,” Jones said. “If you’re good, somebody’s always got something to say. If you suck, nobody talks about losers, right?”
Jones didn’t want to talk about Gwynn’s statistics today.
“I don’t care about all that stuff,” he said. “I’m talking about the man. We all know his numbers, numbers never lie. The man is the part you’re going to miss and that’s the part I’m going to miss.”
Jones also grew close to Gwynn’s son, Tony Jr, who plays for the Phillies.
“I know the family, friends, know them all pretty well,” Jones said. “I know they’re going through a tough time, but that’s the beautiful part about life. You get to see the joys that he brought to a lot of people. I can go into greater detail about him, but I don’t think the media is the right way to do it.”
Reliever Brian Matusz pitched for the University of San Diego, a rival school that Gwynn treated as his own.
“He was a baseball guy and a San Diego guy,” Matusz said. “Spent his entire career with the Padres. One of the best hitters in the history of baseball, for sure. One of the best hitters in our lifetime.
“He was always generous of having players over at his field. He’d always be out there working with San Diego State hitters, but he loved having guys like Adam Jones and myself and (Stephen) Strasburg coming around so his boys could see professional players and be around them. He was a baseball guy and he was so generous. Even though I went to the University of San Diego, he loved having me over at San Diego State. Like it didn’t matter. It was San Diego and it was baseball, two thing he was passionate about. He was a really good guy.
“I remember my freshman year I pitched against San Diego State and pitched really well and got the win. I remember I struck out 12 or something. I was throwing the best fastball I had all year and he called me a ‘thumber,’ like a curveball guy. He called me a ‘thumber’ in the papers. ‘Matusz, the thumber, really stuck it to us.’ It was pretty funny. But he was always joking around and having a good time, and a real baseball guy. It’s really sad, man. Really sad.
“He walked over 700 times. To have almost twice as many walks as strikeouts is phenomenal. Not to mention he batted .338 in his career. It’s just ridiculous. Watching (Nick) Markakis and how many hits he puts up every single day and he’s batting just over. 300. We look at Nick and see how good of a hitter he is, one of the best in the game, and then to see that Tony Gwynn did that his whole career, it’s phenomenal what he did for so long. And to stay in San Diego and coach college baseball and give his knowledge to kids and stay in the community, he was a San Diego guy. Pretty cool”
Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley finished his major league career with the Padres, playing 20 games before retiring in 1991. His spring training locker was next to Gwynn.
“Great guy,” Presley said. “One of the best hitters I’ve ever seen. I talked to him every day about hitting and I learned more from him in one spring training than a lot of people. Just a great guy.
“He’s the example that I give when I talk about just hitting the ball hard enough. You can’t center it up every time you swing, but you try to center it up enough to get it away from people, and that’s what he did. He was really good. He’d go two days without getting a base hit and think the world was coming to an end. That’s how serious he was about it. I loved him.
“He was phenomenal the way he could handle that bat. The shortstop would move over just the least little bit and he’d shoot it in that hole. If the second baseman played him in the hole, he’d shoot it up the middle. He hit some balls up the middle that I thought, well, he’s out. He would hit a four-hopper up the middle, the shortstop went to make the play on the run and he’d beat it out. That’s how quick he was. He was a good runner for a big man. And just a great human being. He really was.
“He don’t strike out. He hated that. You don’t strike Tony Gwynn out. Two strikes and he was putting that ball in play. He would expand the zone, but he could expand the zone and put the barrel on it. And he swung a 33-inch bat. He could handle it. He was pretty special to watch.”
Presley harkens back to his days with Gwynn while instructing hitters.
“Not stuff said the said, but I watched him take BP and what he did, how he worked the barrel of that bat,” Presley said. “He stayed inside the ball so well. Like I said, he would shoot that ball past the shortstop or a four-hopper up the middle and make the guy go get it and he couldn’t make a play. The third baseman has to go in the hole to make the play, and he was so quick he’d just beat it down the line.
“I always said he was the best I’ve ever seen putting the ball in play just hard enough to get that base hit. And of course, he had that swing where he’d stay inside the ball and he’d barrel it just enough to get it away from people.”
Gwynn’s offensive talents tended to overshadow his work with the glove.
“He could defend,” Presley said. “He could have been a center fielder his whole career if he wanted to because he could run. As a matter of fact, I played against him one year in rookie ball in Walla Walla, Washington. He was playing center field. I watched him and I went, ‘Wow, this kid can play.’ He was out of college and I was out of high school and I watched him play for the Padres in Walla Walla, Washington. I looked at him and went, ‘Wow, he can hit.’ And after all those years I got to play with him. Good man.”