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Tuesday, July 24, 2007 | Question: When did San Diego become a big league baseball town?

A) 1969, when the Padres played their first National League season as an expansion franchise.

B) 1984, when the Padres won their first National League pennant and played in their first World Series.

C) July 21, 2007, when the Padres unveiled a bronze statue of Hall of Fame inductee Tony Gwynn at Petco Park.

D) All of the above.

Answer: “A” is a literal answer. “B” and “D” are figurative answers, especially for baseball romantics. They represent milestones that showed the Padres were accepted into the fraternity.

But “C” says San Diego is a big-league town. Here’s why: Tony Gwynn is a civic treasure — not just a baseball player — that is dear to the hearts of hardcore and casual fans alike. You don’t erect a statue in a public square without that icon qualification.

That’s what big-league towns do: Henry Aaron in Atlanta; Willie Mays in San Francisco; Roberto Clemente in Pittsburgh; Al Kaline in Detroit; Ted Williams in Boston; Stan Musial in St. Louis and others. Those players are inextricably linked to their towns.

Last weekend, a week before Gywnn is inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the Padres’ “Tribute to Tony” highlighted the fact that he played all 20 of his Major League seasons in San Diego.

On the granite base of his statue, it reads “Mr. Padre.” For the weekend series, “20 SEASONS” was printed on the left side of the infield and “ONE TEAM” on the right.

Gwynn’s college bond with San Diego that began with his basketball and baseball days at San Diego State was further cemented when the Padres’ first pennant came early in his pro career. He was still a wide-eyed kid caught up in the enthusiasm of the fans, especially during the National Division series comeback against the Chicago Cubs.

“The sixth inning of Game 5 against the Cubs, you couldn’t hear anybody,” Gwynn said. “I was thinking, ‘This is great! I’m going to do this a whole bunch.’”

Gwynn, who gave baseball a new term of the 5.5 hole by aiming between third and short for many of his 3,141 career hits, also was at home in San Diego because he felt the Mission Valley stadium — then called San Diego Jack Murphy — was conducive to his hitting style.

“It wasn’t going to be fun to win somewhere else,” Gywnn said. “It was easy not to get frustrated (with losing seasons) because this is where I wanted to be. I knew it wouldn’t be fun to win somewhere else like it was fun here in 1984. And then 1998 came along; people here had a blast (in the National League playoffs) when we won the Houston series, a blast when we won the Atlanta series and people enjoyed going back to the World Series.”

Gwynn becoming a baseball anchor in San Diego was a key reason the franchise survived the fire sale of Tom Werner’s gang in 1993 and the campaign to build Petco Park downtown was successful.

But even Gwynn, Mr. Padre, and John Moores, the Padres owner who has done so much to foster baseball tradition here, almost let the 20 seasons/one team distinction slip away.

Gwynn was a free agent for his 20th season when he had decided to play one final year in 2001. He told a story recently that revealed how close he came to leaving San Diego. He had approached Hall-of-Famer Rod Carew, one of the players he tried to emulate, for advice.

“I said, ‘Rod, is it OK to leave after 19 years?’” Gywnn said. “Rod said one of the things people don’t understand is he would have loved to stay in Minnesota, but they wouldn’t pay him what he was worth.”

Gwynn walked away reminding himself that playing in San Diego wasn’t about the money, but at the same time, other teams were enticing him.

“I had offers from other teams that blew the Padres out the window,” Gywnn said. “John Moores called me and said to come down to the house to talk. I went down and (general manager) Kevin Towers was there. So were (then manager) Bruce Bochy, (then president) Larry Luchino and (current Boston Red Sox GM) Theo Epstein. I remember thinking, ‘What is Theo doing here? He’s just an intern.’”

By the time Gwynn headed home, he was angry.

“I remember being so upset I backed into a brick wall and thrashed my bumper at John’s house,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘I spent 19 years here and this is how they treat me?’”

As we know by now, cooler heads prevailed. But the cooler head belonged to Tony Gwynn Jr., who at the time was a freshman at San Diego State but is now a big leaguer with the Milwaukee Brewers.

“When I got home,” Gwynn said, “I talked to my family, and my son said, ‘Dad, it’s not about the money with you anyway. What’s the big deal?’”

Gwynn paused and smiled with pride that he was being counseled by his namesake. The son also rises.

“I said, he’s right,” Gwynn said, “and I signed a couple days later.”

And to that story, Tony Sr. and Padres fans everywhere say, “Thank you, Tony Jr.” You preserved Mr. Padre’s 20 seasons/one team distinction.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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