Reflections of Tony Gwynn the coach

I made the call in November 2009. I was working on a Stephen Strasburg-as-wunderkind story for ESPN The Magazine's NEXT issue and I needed to chat with his college coach at San Diego State.

For sportswriters, the procedure for booking an interview with a collegiate coach or athlete starts by calling a university's athletic department, asking for the sports information director and setting up a time when you can conduct an interview with the desired subject.

The importance of adhering to this routine is directly connected to the rung on the ladder on which that subject exists. Strasburg's coach at SDSU was Tony Gwynn. Seeing as how Gwynn happened to be perhaps the greatest hitter of the second half of the 20th century not named Ted Williams, I was most definitely going through the SID to track him down.

I dialed the phone number and listened to the ring. I heard someone pick up.

"Aztec baseball, this is Tony."

Wait ... what? Nah, it couldn't be ...

"Um, yes. I'm calling from ESPN The Magazine. I'd like to talk to the baseball office about setting up an interview with Tony Gwynn."

He laughed, and in that instant the Hall of Famer's identity was confirmed via a chuckle that was every bit a signature as was his swing.

"Well, it's pretty slow around here today. What did you want to talk about?"

For the next 45 minutes we talked about, well, everything. At length, we discussed Strasburg, whom Gwynn described in great detail. He had no doubts about the kid's ability to pitch at the next level, but he was very honest in expressing concern that the soft-spoken fireballer would struggle with the flood of attention that was only going to get worse as he rushed closer to becoming a big leaguer.

"All year long, every time I walk through an airport or go into a bookstore, he's on the cover of another magazine," Gwynn said. "I'm pretty sure 'Baseball America' has had him on every cover since January." Gwynn soon took the wheel of the conversation and began to steer it all over the place. He expressed regret that he hadn't been able to get Strasburg's team to the College World Series in the first of three NCAA tournament appearances for the Aztecs under Gwynn.

"I have gone back and broken down how I approached that [super] regional against Cal Irvine," he said just six months after being eliminated in the Oxford Super Regional with a 1-2 record. "I was such a rookie playoff coach. You want to get your team to Omaha so bad. It changes your entire program overnight when you finally make that trip. It will be so amazing when we finally do that."

They're getting closer. This season marked back-to-back NCAA appearances, the first for the program in nearly two decades. The Aztecs won the Mountain West conference tournament after their coach was forced out of the dugout in April because of his failing health. From then until season's end, the team kept a Gwynn bobblehead in the dugout.

The coach admitted that, in addition to wrestling with postseason round-robin baseball, he had also underestimated the "other stuff" that a college baseball coach must juggle, from recruiting under the oft-maddening 11.7 scholarship restrictions for Division I programs to keeping an eye on academics. When he'd taken over at his alma mater in 2002, replacing retiring head coach Jim Dietz (under whom Gwynn and his brother Chris became All-Americans; Gwynn in 1980 and Chris four years later), he'd naively believed it would be all about baseball.

His teams struggled early to meet academic standards, a problem he would eventually fix.

"The part I think I underestimated was what I call the 'dad part' of the job. You know, I'm coaching 'swing at this, don't swing at that' and in the middle of it a kid looks at me and says, 'Coach, I think I'm going to fail history.' Or maybe their girlfriend just dumped them. These are kids, and once I embraced that, this became a lot more fun."

Gwynn expressed excitement-tinged curiosity about the soon-to-be-dumbed-down college baseball bats.

"I don't know if you know this about me," he said, chuckling again, "But I have a thing for slapping singles."

You could practically hear his smile through the phone line when he talked about coaching his son, Tony Jr., for one year at San Diego State.

"Coaching your son at your school in a ballpark with your name over the door with all your friends and family in the stands?" he said. "C'mon, man!"

He even reflected on one of my personal favorite Tony Gwynn moments, a conversation he had with fellow San Diegan Williams that had aired on "SportsCenter" a decade earlier.

"You can tell I'm trying to play it cool with Ted. But I was so not playing it cool. The entire time I was like, 'He's really sitting here talking with me about this stuff, isn't he?!'"

I knew exactly what Gwynn was talking about. As he continued to talk, and talk, and talk, I was asking myself the same question. The only time he stopped yapping was to pause and spit. "Hang on for a second, I'm drowning here."

The idea of a ballplayer-turned-coach with a wad of tobacco in his cheek seemed like nothing at the time. But less than a year later he would be diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually kill him. That cancer began in a salivary gland. He later readily admitted that it was rooted in his lifelong tobacco habit.

"Wait, I just realized something," Tony Gwynn said to me as he returned to the phone from his spit cup. "How long have we been talking now?"

I looked at my clock and told him we were approaching 45 minutes. He started laughing again. "Man, I never even asked you what your name is. You might not even actually be an ESPN writer. You could just be some guy who happened to call here and I just happened to be the one who answered the phone and talked his ears off like he was some old friend of mine."