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Thursday, March 03, 2005 | Tony Gwynn, dressed in red and black, stood out in a baseball crowd as he talked about the sport that has defined him. In his retirement years, perhaps you’re thinking the red he wore was part of a garish television blazer now that San Diego’s future Hall-of-Famer can be found working as an ESPN baseball analyst.
But if you know San Diego baseball, particularly at the collegiate level, then you’re well aware of Mr. Padre’s new identity in town is as Coach Gwynn. He was wearing red-and-black warm-ups as San Diego State’s baseball coach. Mr. Gwynn’s personality won’t let him sit back and passively watch the game as just a TV analyst.
Gwynn is in his third year as the Aztecs’ head coach and fourth overall after serving an apprentice season in 2002 as a volunteer assistant before succeeding Jim Deitz. Coaching baseball allows Gwynn to continue his hands-on life in baseball. Maybe his 45-year-old body won’t allow him to take the field to hit .300, but his mind can still hit .300 teaching the game.
“There are a lot of people out there who four years ago said I wouldn’t be coaching at San Diego State, that I’d be somewhere else,” Gwynn said. “Well, I’m still here coaching. I’m still enjoying it.’
Gwynn spent 20 seasons with the Padres, connecting for 3,141 hits while winning eight National League batting crowns. He’s destined to become a first-ballot selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown when he becomes eligible in 2007. He could easily have banked on his name recognition and knowledge to land year-round TV work.
“I still work at ESPN in the summer and I do some Padres games, but that’s all secondary to the job I have at San Diego State,” Gwynn said. “At this point in my life, I don’t see that changing. I’m pleased; I’m happy.”
Gwynn’s Padres teammates didn’t always listen when he talked hitting, even while players from other teams sought advice from him. But his subjects on SDSU’s campus are all ears.
“It’s nice to be able to take the information you’ve gathered for 20 years and pass it on to someone who really wants it,” Gwynn said. “That part of my life has really been fun. I’m going to be doing this for a while.”
Gwynn’s goal is to build his alma mater – he was an All-American baseball player for the Aztecs as well as a basketball point guard – into an annual contender for the College World Series. Last year the Aztecs won the Mountain West Conference regular-season title, and he was named the conference’s Coach of the Year. But the Aztecs didn’t advance to the NCAA Tournament when they failed to win the MWC Tournament.
College baseball’s season opened in February and runs into June for the teams that advance to the College World Series. Gwynn has addressed that tournament-tough issue by scheduling national powers, including visits to Tony Gwynn Stadium from defending national champion Cal State Fullerton and No. 1-ranked Texas, even though it has meant a slow start with an overall record of 2-12. In addition to Tuesday’s loss to Cal State Fullerton and three losses to Texas to open the season, other defeats against nationally ranked programs have been against USC, North Carolina State and Long Beach State.
“The reason for that is you want your team tested against teams we’ll have to beat to get where we want to go,” Gwynn said. “We want to go to the College World Series.”
Coach Gwynn, known in his playing days for working on the little things, is plying his new trade in the same manner. Baseball hasn’t thrown him a curve with a mid-life crisis. He has found comfort in his new role as easily as he stroked curveballs.
“I drag my own infield and I build my own mound,” Gwynn said, smiling as easily as he would after going 4-for-5 at the plate. “You don’t know what coaching baseball is like until you’ve got a clump of dirt in your hand and you’re making a pitcher’s mound. If you play baseball, that’s part of the game; doing the work.”
That’s a red-and-black warmup that needs washed at the end of the day. Not a garish red network blazer.
Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the Media Coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (sdhoc.com). His features on high school athletes and coaches can be seen on the cable television show School and Sports Stars on the San Diego County Office of Education’s ITV Channel.