In the middle of the winter, daily sightings of Tony Gwynn walking through the San Diego Padres’ offices were the norm.
“Granted, it was winter in San Diego,” said Red Sox executive vice president and senior advisor Charles Steinberg.
For the better part of the 1990s, Steinberg and fellow Sox executives Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino built the Padres into a World Series team, and even in the offseason, they watched Gwynn treat every day like a work day.
“He would bring a brown bag for his lunch, he’d come in at about 9:30 in the morning and go hit,” Steinberg said. “All winter long, November, December, January. He just treated the ballpark as his shop.”
The running joke was that right field was Gwynn’s office. His life’s work echoes throughout baseball — 2,440 career games over 20 seasons, 3,141 hits, a .338 batting average.
His gift for hitting was God-given. Honing his skill was labor, but it was a labor of love.
“He worked year-round,” Steinberg said. “And that wasn’t something we saw elsewhere in our careers.”
This past January, Steinberg and Lucchino went to a memorial service at Petco Park in San Diego.
It was a reunion of sorts, faces who spent years building the Padres organization.
Gwynn was among the attendees. He had been battling cancer in the salivary gland since 2010, twice having operations on his right cheek. When Lucchino and Steinberg saw him, Steinberg said, “We knew that he was still in a battle.”
When they learned on Monday that Gwynn had died of cancer at 54 years old, it was devastating.
“Everybody’s crushed by it,” Steinberg said.
Calling Gwynn the face of Padres baseball would be selling short what he meant to the franchise and the city.
Steinberg would constantly tell Gwynn that his star would only get brighter if he sought more attention and exposure.
But Gwynn had no desire to leave Southern California, having grown up in Long Beach, played at San Diego State, and marrying his childhood sweetheart and having two children and building his entire life in the area.
“I would say to him, ‘You could be the national face [of baseball],’ ” Steinberg said. “He said, ‘Nah, happy to be in San Diego.’ I would say, ‘You could be Ken Griffey!” He’d say, ‘Nah, happy to be in San Diego.’
“He knew his niche and he protected it. He knew the value of going 20 years with one club and he had it down. He was as beloved as anybody I’d ever seen in San Diego. It might be fair to say he was as beloved in San Diego as any hero has been in their respective city. I mean, everybody loved him.”
The way Gwynn went about the game earned him respect from his contemporaries and made him a legend to players that came after him.
Mike Carp, who is from Long Beach, grew up mimicking Gwynn’s batting stance in his backyard.
“You watched him for many years use the opposite field and take what the pitcher gives him and just absolutely rake,” Carp said. “It really kind of helped influence everybody. Growing up, watching a guy the way he does things makes you want to want to try to do things and emulate.
“Somber day for all of baseball. We lost a true legend, an ambassador to the game and everything he did for baseball for 20 years and continuing afterwards.”
When Jackie Bradley Jr. walked into the Red Sox clubhouse on Monday and saw Gwynn’s face on the television screen, he assumed it was about Gwynn’s playing days.
“Maybe they were just going over the numbers or the legacy,” he said.
When Bradley realized it was because Gwynn had died, it caught him off guard.
“I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Bradley said. “My parents are getting close to that [age].”
Bradley was 11 when Gwynn retired in 2001 — “too young to know the impact that he had on the game” — but Gwynn was someone his father constantly talked about growing up.
“What he did is remarkable for the game,” Bradley said. “He was special.”
Gwynn was upfront about tying his cancer to years using chewing tobacco, a practice that’s ingrained in the baseball culture.
At the major league level, smokeless tobacco has been discouraged but not banned. Since 2011, teams are prohibited from providing it to players, clubhouse workers can’t buy it for them, and players can’t have tobacco tins on their person during games. The minor leagues, however, don’t allow chewing tobacco at all.
“They actually have, like, the ‘tobacco police’ in the minor leagues,” Bradley said, who has never had a desire to dip. “They try to check to cut down on some of that. Obviously when you appear in the big leagues, a lot of things aren’t as monitored such as that. I feel like they’ve got more things to worry about than tobacco.
“I think it just comes down to personal preference. Guys are going to do what they’ve been doing their whole careers. But I guess it’s one of those things where it’s a personal preference.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.