Commentary: Death of Tony Gwynn Robs Sports Fans of a Great Man

Former San Diego Padres star another victim of a disease we must find a cure for.

Posted: 06/18/2014 10:59 AM EDT
Tony Gwynn

Cancer is killing Black men. It doesn’t matter how much money or fame one has, because cancer doesn’t discriminate.

Sadly, I was reminded of that fact again Monday when I heard Tony Gwynn, an 18-time All Star and one of the purest hitters ever, had died of cancer. Gwynn was 54.

In a world where medicine has extended lives of Black men far beyond 54 years, time and time again I hear about a Black man’s early death from some form of cancer.

Two years ago, I lost one of my dearest friends to that dreaded disease. Brian was 42, and he died of prostate cancer, a treatable disease when caught in its early stage.

Gwynn’s cancer wasn’t prostate. Gwynn died of a cancer that he attributed to his use of tobacco.

I don’t care what his cancer was, though. I do care that we, any of us who follow baseball or who appreciate athletes that understand they are role models, have lost a man whose character was as splendid as his baseball ability.

For sure, Gwynn’s baseball ability was top shelf. In a Hall-of-Fame career that spanned three decades, Gwynn lined 3,141 hits around ballparks. Batting left-handed, he had a swing so sweet that you could have sold it as honey. He also had the kind of average man’s persona that endeared him to sports fans and to baseball writers.

Doubtless, Gwynn might have been more revered had his career been spent anywhere except San Diego. For most of his time with the Padres, he was their only player that mattered.

Just imagine if Gwynn had been a Yankee, a Twin or a Cardinal. He would have been talked about in the same glowing words fans reserved for ballplayers like Derek Jeter, Kirby Puckett or Ozzie Smith.

But during an era in which most players hopped from team to team like a chess piece, Gwynn chose to remain a Padre. His choice cost him millions; his choice cost him a measure of fame.

No price is too much to pay for happiness, and Gwynn’s choice kept him happy. It also made him the darling of Padres fans.

They referred to him as “Mr. Padre,” which Gwynn was. Their adulation proves as tangible as the life-sized statue of him outside Petco Park.

Even after he retired, he remained a fixture in the community. He was a baseball coach at San Diego State, his alma mater. He stayed connected to the game in ways that other Black stars have not.

That’s what I will miss about Gwynn, whom I met during my years of covering Major League Baseball. That’s what everybody else who met him will miss as well.

As we all mourn his death from cancer, we should celebrate the fact that Gwynn gave us reasons to love athletes – a reason to understand why, despite what athletes like Charles Barkley say, we show so much affection for men that we know only in outline.

But the outline I had seen on Tony Gwynn’s life was so readable it helped me appreciate athletes who could and did display greatness on and off the playing field.

I only wish there were more of them.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

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