What It Is Like Playing for Tony Gwynn

For a current or former Aztec baseball player, any casual conversation about baseball produces the following question without fail; “So what’s it like to play for Tony Gwynn?” Personally, I have been asked this question many times. I’m not sure I have ever really answered the question. How could you? I suppose I’ve given multiple answers such as, “It’s awesome! He knows so much about the game, and I’ve learned so much.”

Nothing about this answer is untrue, but it’s incomplete. So, with the help of other Aztecs, I’m going to give the answer some weight.

I started making calls and talking to players who had developed a close relationship with Coach Gwynn. I was met with a similar start to each of their answers. The consensus was that the experience of playing for Tony Gwynn was unlike any other collegiate baseball player’s. But why?

When I spoke with Greg Allen who played centerfield for SDSU from 2012-2014 he used the term “unique” when describing Gwynn’s coaching style. I asked him what he meant by unique and he followed by saying, “unique in the way he handled us as players; he viewed us as equal and on a level platform with him.” I found a similar trend when I spoke with Jomel Torres who played outfield and first base during the 2009-2012 seasons. Torres told me that Coach Gwynn was the first coach to sympathize with his weight problem rather than ridicule it. Torres explained to me how he first was starstruck, but began to feel a connection with Gwynn, seeing him more as a mentor than anything else. He described how Coach Gwynn addressed him as equal even though by any stretch of the imagination he wasn’t, nor was anyone.

The last of the more recent players I spoke to was Brad Haynal, a catcher for SDSU from 2011-2014. Haynal described the experience of playing for Gwynn as intimidating at first because as a young baseball player “you just want his approval so badly.” Just as the other players I spoke with, Haynal also soon came to realize that playing for Tony Gwynn really was just about putting in the work he expected of you. He claimed, “as you establish yourself as a hard worker your relationship with him grew…I came to find what a genuine man he was and how willing he was to lend advice.”

After hearing these three talk about their experiences with Coach Gwynn a pattern became clear. As for myself, I found it incredibly nerve-racking the first time I knew Coach Gwynn was watching me pitch. I know the hitters must have felt even more intimidated. We all wanted to impress him, and we all envied his accomplishments in the sport we loved. However, as our Aztec careers went on, our envy for Coach began to shift. Rather than gawking over his statistical accomplishments, we began to notice things about him that weren’t baseball related at all. We noticed how committed to the university he was when he seemed astonished that we weren’t up to date with the latest news from the Aztec basketball or football teams. We noticed the way he acted around his son, Tony Gwynn Jr., and how much more Coach Gwynn smiled when he came to a practice. And, most of all, we noticed his loyalty when we would be lectured about only using Nike clothes and gear. He would say, “They take care of us! Wear the stuff they give you!”

When I spoke with some Aztecs from earlier years, I brought up those Nike lectures and asked about their experiences with Coach Gwynn’s loyalty. Brandon Pullen, a left-handed pitcher at SDSU from 2007-2008 told me, “I remember watching big league guys flock to the SDSU batting cages just to hit for an hour or so with Coach. I always wondered why he didn’t take any kind of pro job, I guess his loyalty to his guys and his program was unlike anything else I knew.” As I spoke with Pullen he also expressed his amazement at Gwynn’s ability to “put his nose down and keep working.” We discussed how this unique ability he had contributed to his loyal nature. He believed so strongly in the SDSU baseball program and the guys in it. It was apparent to us players that he wasn’t going to give up on us regardless of the successes or failures.

The final former player I spoke with was Landon Burt, an outfielder for SDSU from 2002-2004. Burt was at SDSU for Gwynn’s first year as a volunteer assistant and coach-in-waiting. We talked about what it was like to play for Coach and how much we took for granted what he had given to us. In Burt’s case, Gwynn had given him the self confidence he had lacked in his early playing days. Early on in his Aztec career Gwynn told Burt, “You gotta believe in yourself! I believe in you!” That stuck with Burt through his entire career and into his post-baseball life as well. He explained to me how having a baseball immortal like Gwynn say he truly believed in his abilities was more than enough to catapult him to a successful career. I asked Burt why he thought Gwynn was so loyal to everyone close to him and Burt emphatically answered that it was the way he was raised. Just like any other father, Gwynn’s father wanted only the best for his son. Coach Gwynn applied that same feeling to each of us as players as well as everyone else close to him.

From these conversations I realized what made playing for Coach Gwynn unlike anything else was how he brought the same level of loyalty to you, as he did everything. The reality is that Tony Gwynn had something wound tightly into his DNA that made him the most loyal person any of us knew. I know that “loyal” isn’t a new word to describe Tony Gwynn, but there’s a reason why it’s the first word anyone uses when talking about him. What’s more, Coach Gwynn’s unwavering loyalty extended far beyond what most people know. He wasn’t just loyal to his wife Alicia, the Padres, or San Diego State; he showed everyone else close to him the same level of loyalty.

Rather than trying to explain it, here’s a short story.

After a highly mediocre regular season in 2013 we got hot at the right time and won the Mountain West Conference tournament to clinch an NCAA playoff berth. It was the whole team’s first experience with postseason play as we congregated in the athletics center to watch the regional selection show. As we entered the viewing room, we were greeted by an unusual amount of media. As we took our seats in front of the screen, Coach Gwynn walked into the room and immediately took note of the numerous cameras and microphones and said something none of us were expecting, and something I’m sure no other college coach would say:

“Who are you guys?” he called out. As the various reporters barked out their answers Coach Gwynn just stood there shaking his head with a half smile. When one of the reporters asked what he was smiling about he replied, “it’s just funny that we ain’t seen any of you guys all year, and now you show up after we’ve had a little success expecting interviews.” The media members stood silent, dumbfounded as they watched Gwynn take his seat.” After the selection show had finished, Coach made sure the media members who had been there all year received interviews and pictures first while the so called “bandwagoners” stood off to the side. The next day at practice Coach Gwynn addressed what had happened, and in doing so said something I will never forget.

“We take care of our own.”

If you played hard, put in your work and did things the right way for Coach Gwynn, you got taken care of- simple as that. To me, that embodies what it was like to play for Tony Gwynn. It was the way he lived his life and it’s the way he taught each and every one of us to live ours. It was beautifully simple, just like his approach at the plate, “trust your eyes, hit the ball where it’s pitched.”

If you’ve followed SDSU baseball at all in the past 12 years you’ve probably heard the knocks on Tony Gwynn the coach. “He’s just a figurehead for the program,” or “Great players just can’t be great coaches.” I don’t know the level of truth these accusations hold, but one thing I or any other player at SDSU will tell you is that Coach Gwynn had your back.

Without fail, if you were on Coach Gwynn’s team, he had your back. It didn’t matter if you made a mistake on or off the field; you could count on Coach to let you know that you screwed up, and then help you fix whatever it was.

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*Featured Photo (above) credit to the Associated Press

Photo: Urban Meyer drops photobomb at wedding
Photo: Urban Meyer drops photobomb at wedding