Other than that sweet swing and the 3,141 hits, the thing that stood out the most about Tony Gwynn was the 1000-watt smile that shined on everyone he met and seemed to be right for every occasion.

If Gwynn, who died from cancer Monday at age 54, appeared to be the world's nicest human whenever he showed up on ESPN's SportsCenter or at some local charity event, then there really is truth in advertising because he was the real deal both on the field and off it.


Of course, he was one of the greatest all-time hitters and, if you needed a testimonial to that, you could have asked Ted Williams before he died in 2002. He was a big fan of Gwynn's, as was Cal Ripken Jr., whose heartfelt statement Monday simply confirmed what anybody who ever met Gwynn already knew.

"Tony was a Hall of Fame ballplayer but more importantly he was a wonderful man," Ripken said in the statement. "Tony always had a big smile on his face and was one of the warmest and most genuine people I have ever had the honor of knowing."
The first time I ever encountered Gwynn in person was back in 1985 during baseball's winter meetings in San Diego. He had just completed his fourth season in the major leagues and already was a major star, but he volunteered to umpire the annual media softball game and made it a memorable event just by showing up and giving the clumsy baseball writers a dose of their own medicine.

He was always promoting the city where he starred in both basketball and baseball at San Diego State University, went to Cooperstown, N.Y., in a Padres uniform and most recently was the coach of the Aztecs before taking a leave of absence to undergo treatment for the cancer that would steal him from us.

He just seemed to radiate positive energy, and he never complained during the lean years when he was Mr. Padre for a franchise that went 12 seasons between playoff appearances after he played in the World Series in his first full major league season in 1984.

My favorite memory of Gwynn was traveling up to Philadelphia periodically to interview him when I was The Baltimore Sun's national baseball writer in the late 1990s. The national guys would walk in when the visitors' clubhouse opened at Veterans Stadium and scan the room ... but Tony was always too quick for us.
"I'm over here," he'd say cheerfully, even though he had to be the team spokesman on every road stop.
It seemed so appropriate when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame the same year as Ripken. When they stood on the stage together in front of that record crowd at the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown, they made everybody forget the steroid scandal that was diminishing the national pastime and helped us all remember why it became the national pastime in the first place.

They both were near-unanimous choices in the Baseball Writers' Association of America Hall of Fame election, but that was no surprise. They were also the people's choice because they were both so accessible to the fans throughout their careers.

Gwynn's passing has left a big hole in the heart of the game he loved.

What a sad day.

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