LONG BEACH, Calif. — On a quiet street in working-class West Long Beach is an aging house with sun-baked beige paint, chipped white shutters and the blinds drawn up tight.
It takes some imagination to envision this as the place where the iconic swing of San Diego Padres legend Tony Gwynn was born.
Gwynn, his two brothers and their friends played baseball on a narrow strip of grass in the backyard almost every day as kids in the early 1970s, seldom stopping until long after the sun disappeared beneath the horizon. When the Gwynns exhausted their supply of wiffle balls by hitting them so hard they cracked or losing them behind a neighbor's fence, they substituted anything from sock balls, to wads of tape, to figs picked from neighborhood trees.
"We'd take old socks, put rubber bands around them until they were the size of ping pong balls and we'd play for hours," said Joe Plummer, one of Gwynn's closest childhood friends. "Tony's eyesight was incredible. You'd throw a fig the size of a quarter, and Tony would just rope it every time."
Stories like that illustrate the role Gwynn's hometown of Long Beach played in shaping him as a baseball player and a person. The man known as Mr. Padre will forever be most synonymous with San Diego, but another Southern California city 70 miles north imbued him with the relentless work ethic, uncanny hand-eye coordination, an infectious laugh and passion for baseball that remained his trademarks long after he moved away.
Gwynn died at age 54 Monday morning after a four-year battle with cancer, leaving behind a legacy unmatched by any hitter in his generation. The Hall of Fame outfielder hit .338 for his career, captured eight batting titles, collected 3,141 career hits, made 15 All-Star games and once went 39 consecutive games without recording a strikeout.
Whereas fans in San Diego mourned Gwynn's death by snapping photos of his statue outside Petco Park or placing dozens of bouquets of flowers at its base, the reaction was more muted and subdued in his hometown.
Cars whizzed past the home where Gwynn grew up and where his mother still lives. Pedestrians strolling by the baseball diamond at a nearby park seemed unaware that's where Gwynn began building his legend as a kid. Even the Long Beach Polytechnic High School baseball field that bears Gwynn's family name is devoid of tributes save for the red roses and sunflowers 46-year-old Kenneth Stephens and three friends placed in the chain-link outfield fence Monday evening.
"We're big supporters of Long Beach Poly, so we pooled our money together and bought some flowers in honor of Tony," said Stephens, a Long Beach native who looked up to Tony and his brothers as a kid and now owns a soul food restaurant across the street from the high school. "We wanted to make sure people know he's not forgotten."
It's no surprise Gwynn excelled in sports because he was born into a family of athletes.
Older brother Charles played several sports at Poly, got selected by the Cleveland Indians out of high school and went on to become one of the best hitters in Cal State Los Angeles baseball history. Younger brother Chris emerged as an even more celebrated multi-sport athlete at Poly than either of his brothers, got selected by the Dodgers in the first round of the draft and went on to enjoy a solid 10-year Major League career.
The athletic success Charles, Tony and Chris enjoyed is a testament to the work ethic and passion for sports instilled by their parents.
When Charles and Vendella Gwynn decided to leave Los Angeles when Tony was 10 years old, they chose Long Beach as their destination because it offered good schools, dozens of parks and year-round youth sports options. Charles was also the one who first turned their backyard into a makeshift baseball diamond, planting home plate by the backdoor of the house and encouraging his boys to go play whenever he returned home from work to find them all in the house.
In retrospect, those backyard games were more important to Tony's career than he could have dreamed.
Spending so much time swinging at balls so small made Tony's vision and hand-eye coordination better than most of his peers. He also had no choice but to learn to use all fields at the plate because the shape of the backyard dictated that pulling the ball usually meant losing it over a neighbor's fence.
"For us, I don't think any of us thought that hitting a fig, hitting a sock ball or hitting a wad of tape was going to turn into this," Gwynn said during his 2007 Hall of Fame speech in Cooperstown. "It's unbelievable."
Long before Gwynn emerged as a perennial Major League All-Star, he was already a legend in his neighborhood. Rick Perruccio, whose father and older brother coached Gwynn at Poly and in Little League, recalled a game in which Gwynn homered to right field and center field in his first two at-bats.
"My dad said something like, 'All you have left is left field,'" Perruccio recalled. "So next time up, he hit a home run to left field. He played for my dad when he was 12 or 13 and even at that time, you could tell he had a chance to be special."
Even though Gwynn excelled in baseball growing up, there was a period in which he believed basketball was probably his best sport.
The short but speedy Gwynn became a standout point guard in high school, helping a talent-laden Poly team finish 30-1 and win a section championship as a junior in 1976 and then leading the Jackrabbits back to the title game his senior season. The hand-eye coordination, vision and aptitude that made Gwynn a standout hitter in baseball also translated well to the point guard position because he excelled at handling the ball, finding teammates in position to score and making good decisions with the ball in his hands.
Gwynn was such a talented point guard that he considered quitting baseball altogether to focus exclusively on basketball before his senior year of high school. His mother eventually talked him into sticking with baseball one more season, but he still attended San Diego State on a basketball scholarship and only began playing baseball again as a sophomore after one of his hoops teammates tipped off the baseball coaches that the school's starting point guard was a halfway decent hitter too.
Even so, Gwynn still holds the career assists record at San Diego State and was selected by the then-San Diego Clippers in the 1981 NBA draft on the same day the Padres took him in the third round of the Major League draft. Both Gwynn and his basketball coach at Poly, Ron Palmer, often wondered how successful Gwynn might have been had he pursued basketball instead.
"Obviously, I would never tell anyone that he made the wrong decision to play baseball based on the outcome, but he'd have been a great basketball player too," Palmer said. "He could have played in the NBA and he could have been a coach because he understood the game he was playing like nobody else I've had. Just like in baseball, he absolutely understood the game."
Although Gwynn left Long Beach after high school, he remained involved with his hometown while he played for the Padres and after he retired.
He spoke to the Poly baseball team in San Diego in 2010 and regularly donated money for jerseys and equipment to the baseball and basketball programs at his former high school. He always left tickets for friends and former youth coaches whenever the Padres played the Dodgers or Angels. His closest childhood friends received holiday and birthday cards each year and frequent phone calls and invitations to come visit him in San Diego.
Rick Perruccio's favorite story of Gwynn's generosity came at the apex of the outfielder's fame in June 1997. Perruccio and his 76-year-old father Isadore ambled down to the seats above the visiting dugout at Angels Stadium during batting practice and got the attention of a woman on the field.
"Hey, is Tony Gwynn in there?" Perruccio shouted. "Can you tell him that his Little League coach Mr. P. is here and wants to say hi?"
The skeptical expression on the woman's face suggested she didn't think one of baseball's greatest hitters would make time for such a request, but much to her surprise Gwynn instantly climbed the dugout steps and walked over to where the Perruccios stood along the railing. Gwynn shook the elder Perruccio's hand and spent 10 minutes reminiscing and answering questions before disappearing back into the dugout.
"Tony took time to come out and see us when he didn't have to," Rick Perruccio said. "That meant the world to my dad, but he was just that type of guy. He'd go out of his way to make time for anyone."
Though Gwynn will forever be identified with San Diego, his family provided friendship and inspiration for a generation of kids in West Long Beach. And Gwynn's hometown left an imprint on him as well.
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