MIAMI – Growing up in San Diego, Jason McLeod had Tony Gwynn posters on his wall and wore No. 19 as a tribute to his favorite player. All these years later, the Cubs executive looks back on his friendship with Mr. Padre and it still feels surreal: “How did that happen?”
McLeod had a bad feeling on Monday when he got a phone call at 7 a.m. from the West Coast. Gwynn’s agent, John Boggs, broke the news, and it hit McLeod hard. The Hall of Famer had died at the age of 54 after a long battle with cancer.
“So many memories,” McLeod said over the phone. “Hearing that laugh, just seeing that big-ass smile on his face, is something I’ll never forget.”
Gwynn put up 3,141 hits and a career .338 average, winning eight National League batting titles and getting into Cooperstown on the first ballot with 97.6 percent of the vote in 2007. His stocky frame masked the athleticism that allowed him to become a 15-time All-Star and win five Gold Gloves as an outfielder after getting picked by the San Diego Clippers in the 1981 NBA draft.
But here’s what ultimately separated Gwynn, why so many tributes flowed in from around baseball: His gift for teaching hitting, the insight into the game he gave reporters, the way he treated people behind the scenes.
“He is Mr. Padre, but he is such a damn good person,” McLeod said. “He loved the game so much. He loved the city so much. He loved his family so much.”
Gwynn blamed the cancer in his salivary gland and cheek on a chewing tobacco habit. He had taken a leave of absence from his job as the head baseball coach at San Diego State, where he once starred as the point guard on the basketball team and an All-American baseball player.
Listening to McLeod, it sounded like the way Cubs people talked about the late Ron Santo, how the player they rooted for as a kid wound up being an even better guy.
McLeod remembered being in grade school in Yuma, Ariz., where his father had been stationed with the Marines. The Padres held spring training there and McLeod worked part-time in the clubhouse, meeting his idol for the first time.
But that was nothing compared to the relationship that developed after McLeod started as an intern in San Diego’s baseball operations department in 1994.
When McLeod, a former minor-league pitcher, got offered a job as a rookie-league level hitting coach, he asked Gwynn for help. The response: “Of course, man.”
The Padres who lived in the area would work out at the old Jack Murphy Stadium during the offseason. Three, four, five days a week, McLeod would hang around the batting tunnels, trying to soak up all the knowledge.
“It was a crash course that didn’t feel like a crash course,” said McLeod, who now oversees scouting and player development for the Cubs.
Cubs catcher John Baker remembered how Gwynn would ask him to relay messages to younger teammates when he played in San Diego. Gwynn would sit down with Baker to explain his points and say: “I told him the same thing, but maybe if he hears it from you, it will sink in.”
“It shows Tony’s genius,” Baker said. “That’s why he was a good college-baseball coach, too. He knew how to communicate with people, and he knew when it was his time to step out.”
Baker also played with Tony Gwynn Jr. last year at Triple-A Albuquerque, the Los Angeles Dodgers affiliate, which made it that much more difficult the day after Father’s Day.
“All the baseball accolades aside, he would still talk to you like a regular person, which I think sometimes doesn’t happen with some of the superstar players and Hall of Famers,” Baker said. “But Tony talked to you man to man, eye to eye, about real things. I really appreciated his presence and him being around as one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball. Plus, he was really nice.
“And then I got to meet his kid, see how he was raised and see what kind of person Tony Gwynn Jr. is, and I’d like to think it’s a great example of what a father’s supposed to be.
“My heart goes out to them. It’s just a really sad day for baseball.”
That’s why McLeod felt like he was rambling on the phone, all those memories flooding back into his mind and the emotions choking his voice for a moment.
McLeod was there for Gwynn’s 3,000th hit at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium in 1999. Earlier that summer, McLeod traveled to Fenway Park for the first time and watched Gwynn help Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams throw out the first pitch in an unforgettable All-Star Game moment.
“This was my hero,” McLeod said. “And the night before the All-Star Game, I’m sitting in his hotel room, eating dinner and talking baseball.”
At his house in suburban Chicago, McLeod now has a framed picture with Gwynn and the Green Monster in the background. They took another photo together during McLeod’s first trip to Wrigley Field in 1995. It’s still hard to believe the image on a kid’s bedroom wall could be such a great friend in real life.
“He was so humble throughout the whole thing,” McLeod said. “It’s just devastating.”