More than 20,000 pay tribute to a fallen hero
Published - 06/16/14 - 02:28 PM | 17640 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
More than 20,000, including some of the biggest names in baseball, gathered at Petco Park Thursday, June 26, for a final farewell to a career San Diego Padre widely regarded as one of the greatest hitters in the game and among the greatest people ever to walk on a diamond.

Anthony Keith (Tony) Gwynn died of salivary gland cancer June 16 at age 54, fueling tributes among Padres fans and baseball luminaries alike, among them Reggie Jackson and Tony LaRussa.

Most of the guests at the public memorial, though, weren't as easily recognizable, but if you were to ask Gwynn, they were of equal or greater importance to a man who wore only one uniform in his 20-year career.

It was the fans, 23,229 of them, many wearing jerseys with Gwynn's name and jersey number -- No. 19. They came early to Petco Park, as lines stretched up and down Park Boulevard waiting to get in, waiting to say goodbye to a legend -- their legend.

"We will cry together, we will laugh together, we will have joy together today," longtime Padres broadcaster Ted Leitner, who emceed the event, promised at the start of the program.

"But one thing we'll never do is forget one of the greatest hitters of this generation, and of all-time."

One of those fans in attendance was Karen Ray, a San Diego resident since 1966. Ray, as many were on Thursday, was decked out nearly head to toe in Padres gear, including a commemorative shirt, a free giveaway at Jack Murphy Stadium that celebrated Gwynn's 3,000th career hit in 1999.

The once-white shirt wasn't quite as white anymore, but Ray has taken good care of it over the years, bringing it out of her dresser for special occasions.

Ray remembers the first time she saw Gwynn. It was 1982, Gwynn's first season in the big leagues, and a friend had given her a ticket they couldn't use. So Ray made her way down to the rail near the first-base line before the game, hoping to get an autograph from players she actually recognized.

Gwynn wasn't one of them. Not for long, anyway.

"He's out on the field stretching and he saw me staring at him," Ray said. "He flashed me this big smile, and he waved at me. I became a fan of him right then and there."

There were a handful of speakers Thursday, including Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler, Jackson and former Padres closer Trevor Hoffman. They all talked about Gwynn, his career, personality and his impact in San Diego, impact that exceeded his on-field value.

"He was the definition of a true friend. In life, there's a lot of acquaintances, but few true friends," said John Boggs, longtime friend and Gwynn's agent for over 30 years. "He was so much better than the statistics he accumulated."

Over the years, Boggs said, Gwynn had chances to leave San Diego, to purse bigger contracts, to play for perennial postseason contenders, where his star could have burned much brighter. He never gave it a second thought. Not once.

"He said, 'I'm not going anywhere. This is where I belong, and San Diego is home. He was and always will be Mr. Padre,'" Boggs said.

There was a video montage sprinkled with interview snippets of Gwynn. He was smiling in just about all of them, that infectious cackle that was so distinct.

"There was no laugh like that," said Leitner, who played a clip of Gwynn's laugh on the cellular phone.

"Tony Gwynn was a first-ballot Hall of Famer off the field. Tony was more than a baseball player. He was a San Diego icon," said San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

One of the last speakers, Hoffman, fought back tears as he spoke of his former teammate.

"Thank you for your Hall of Fame career. Thank you for representing San Diego with such class. And thank you for letting us all into your house tonight," Hoffman said.

Hoffman was originally listed as the last speaker Thursday. But, Gwynn's daughter, Anisha Gwynn Jones, made a brief appearance on stage, thanking everyone for coming, and then giving praise to the fans -- the ones who dutifully supported, watched and followed her father's career for so many years.

"You guys are why my dad loved San Diego so much," she said.

San Diego County officials had hoisted a giant version of Gwynn’s 1984 jersey onto to the tower of the historic County Administration Center Wednesday afternoon, June 18. More than a few fans said the 1930s-era building on San Diego Bay never looked better.

The four-story tribute was organized by County Supervisors Vice Chairman Greg Cox and Supervisor Dianne Jacob, and underwritten by Cox Communications and Channel 4 San Diego. The design and installation were coordinated by Y3K Grafix of Temecula.

“Our company loves to celebrate the things that make San Diego great, and Tony Gwynn is at the top of that list,” said Bill Geppert, vice president and general manager of Cox Communications. “We tip our ball caps to Mr. Padre and congratulate him on his big day.”

“For 20 years, Tony Gwynn thrilled and delighted San Diegans,” Cox said. “Today, we get to return the favor. By hanging that big old No. 19 on the side of the County Center, we pay tribute to one of our favorite hometown legends.”

“On and off the field, Tony Gwynn is a San Diegan of elite distinction,” said County Supervisor Dianne Jacob. “Tony’s work ethic, attitude and commitment to community are second to none. San Diego is lucky to have Tony as a regional role model.”

Made from 700 feet of wind-resistant mesh, the jersey is 35 feet tall and measures 30 feet wide from sleeve to sleeve. The total cost of fabrication, installation and removal was $7,500.

Meanwhile, on behalf of the late Tony Gwynn's family, the San Diego Padres have announced that a free, public memorial tribute to the legendary ballplayer will be held on Thursday, June 26 at 7:19 p.m. at Petco Park. Gates will open at 5:30 p.m. Fans may enter through the Home Plate or Park Boulevard gates on Park Boulevard as well as through the Gaslamp Gate on 7th Avenue or the East Village Gate on 10th Avenue.

The event will celebrate the life and accomplishments of Gwynn, who died Monday of salivary gland cancer at age 54. It will feature special guests from throughout his lifetime. Free parking will be provided in three locations: two surface lots along Imperial Avenue (Parcel C lot and Tailgate lot) on the southeast side of Petco Park, and the Padres Parkade garage (10th Avenue at J Street).

The Wednesday, June 18 Padres-Mariners home contest featured several tributes to Gwynn, including 19 seconds of silence. Gwynn wore No. 19 through his 20-year career with the Padres. The Padres rallied to win the game, 2-1.

Meanwhile, Mayor Kevin Faulconer is encouraging city employees and all San Diegans to wear Padres paraphernalia on Thursday, June 19, as a tribute to Gwynn.

“Tony Gwynn is a true San Diego icon,” Faulconer said. “As San Diegans continue to mourn the loss of a Hall of Famer on and off the field, I encourage all of San Diego to pay tribute to No. 19 on the 19th.”

Faulconer also encourages employers throughout San Diego to do likewise.

Hundreds of mourners have streamed to Petco Park beyond the outfield fence the past two days to pay their respects at Gwynn's statue, leaving behind flowers, notes, photos and memorabilia.

Team officials say they are working on a more substantial memorial event, possibly for next week, but arrangements have not been completed.

Los Angeles native Gwynn, who belted 3,141 hits in his 20 seasons with Padres, had a .338 career batting average and was a 15-time All Star. His batting average was the highest since Ted Williams retired from the Red Sox in 1960 with a .344 average.

Gwynn's playing career ended in 2001, and since then he had been the head baseball coach at San Diego State University, where he starred in both baseball and basketball as a collegian. He was also a part-time analyst on Padres telecasts.

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