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Gwynn remembered for work off the field

The infectious laugh. The humble disposition. The giving nature.

Those who knew Tony Gwynn knew he was much more than a legendary baseball player.

"People say it's cliché, but not with him — 'Great player but a better person,'" longtime Padres radio broadcaster Ted Leitner said. "That's exactly what he was."

Juan Pierre, who won a World Series ring with the Florida Marlins during a 14-year career, grew up idolizing Gwynn, yet he felt the Padre icon treated him like an equal.

"You hear that kind of thing at every level — from former players and opponents to the media," Leitner said.

Gwynn's exploits on the field have been well documented — 3,141 career hits, 15-time All-Star, .338 career batting average — but now stories of his off-field attributes are pouring out after his death Monday from cancer at the age of 54.

Leitner remembered when Gwynn took the field in Yankee Stadium for the first game of the 1998 World Series. The future Hall of Famer knelt down on one knee, looked to the sky and spoke to the heavens. Leitner, spying Gwynn with binoculars, knew exactly what the family man was doing.

"I said, 'You were talking to your dad, weren't you?'" Leitner recalled asking Gwynn in the clubhouse afterward. "And he said, 'Yeah, how'd you know?' His dad was a big baseball fan and here was Tony, talking to him, saying, 'I'm here. I made it. Yankee Stadium. Game 1.'"

Leitner had known Gwynn since the late 1970s, when he was a shy, unassuming college kid at San Diego State who was no good at interviews. Leitner used to call him "dental tools" because getting information from Gwynn was like pulling teeth.

"It was amazing to watch his transformation," Leitner said. "To see how he became this incredible spokesman."

Tony Gwynn at a National Baseball Hall of Fame news conference in 2007. Friends and fans of Gwynn have been recalling their favorite moments with Gwynn since he died Monday from cancer at the age of 54. Photo by Jeremy Sparig/Bloomberg News

Dennis Morgigno, who helped produce Padres games for Cox Communications' Channel 4, said Gwynn always was giving of his time, especially when it meant talking baseball.

"We always had a joke," Morgigno said, "that if you need to fill time, ask Tony one question and let him go. He always had lots to say."

Morgigno was responsible for developing feature stories to use during the Padres' pre-game show. One time, he came up with the idea to get Gwynn, one of the best pure hitters in Major League history, to talk about his favorite hitters.

When Morgigno approached Gwynn before batting practice one night, the Padres star wasn't in the best of moods. "He probably only had one hit the night before," Morgigno joked, and the hitter declined the request.

Gwynn later disappeared down the clubhouse tunnel and, 20 minutes later, returned with a list of 30 names. He then scheduled a time to discuss the list with Morgigno on air.

"I thought you didn’t want to do it," Morgigno told Gwynn. "And he said, 'You know me.'

"You want to do this? It's my job to help you out," Morgigno recalled of Gwynn's philosophy. "He respected other people's crafts."

Gwynn also cared deeply about the well-being of others. It was how he was raised by his parents, and how he raised his children.

Morgigno said he was contacted by a woman in his doctor's office who had a gravely ill relative in the hospital, and asked him if he could get Gwynn to pay a visit. The sick relative was a huge Padres fan. Morgigno relayed the request, and Gwynn, coaching the San Diego State University's men's team at the time, agreed without hesitation.

Gwynn spent about 20 minutes with the woman.

"They were blown away that he showed up," Morgigno said. "He was happy to do it. He saw it as his duty in the community. He was a role model for his kids and for anybody looking at him in a baseball uniform. He didn't feel any pressure because that's just who he was."

Morgigno said it's reflected in Tony Gwynn Jr., "who is one of the most amazing young men you'll meet in your life."

San Diego attorney Jay Jeffcoat, a partner with the law firm DLA Piper, knows just what kind of a personal touch Gwynn had.

Jeffcoat lost his home — and formidable baseball memorabilia collection — during the 2007 wildfires. Among the items he lost was an autographed Tony Gwynn 1984 World Series jersey.

Gwynn, who knew Jeffcoat through the attorney's work with the San Diego Sports Council and the Kiwanis Club, surprised Jeffcoat with another 1984 World Series jersey — this time with Gwynn's Hall of Fame signature. Gwynn had been inducted into Cooperstown earlier in 2007.

Gwynn also gave Jeffcoat a glass-enshrined replica of one of his five Gold Gloves.

"Tony was very special," Jeffcoat said.

The downtown San Diego Kiwanis Club started a scholarship for the San Diego State Aztec baseball program when Gwynn became its manager in 2002, calling it the Don McKee Tony Gwynn Kiwanis scholarship. At the annual awards dinner, Gwynn would speak and bring along an Aztec player.

Jeffcoat would introduce Gwynn, a notoriously reticent public speaker, before every speech. One time, Jeffcoat played on the standard "needs no introduction" line by saying "a man who wants no introduction."

"He laughed and said, 'That's maybe the best introduction I've ever gotten,'" Jeffcoat said.

Jeffcoat said Gwynn wanted his misfortune of having cancer to serve as a cautionary tale for others. While doctors couldn’t isolate the exact cause of his illness, he wanted people to know his use of chewing tobacco likely led to his cancer and hoped his story would deter kids from using chewing tobacco.

Jeffcoat said he'll miss "just having [Gwynn's] presence in San Diego as a statement to the world about the very best in sports, the very best in humanity."

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