Jun 17, 2014, 5:21 PM EDT
Stephen Strasburg addressed the media in front of his locker at Nationals Park on Tuesday, holding back tears as he spoke fondly of his college coach, Tony Gwynn, a man he grew up admiring as a child in San Diego before later working with him on a daily basis for three years of his life.
Gwynn passed away on Monday at the age of 54 after a long battle with cancer, a piece of news that met Strasburg when he awoke on the Nats’ off-day.
“It’s tough because the last couple of weeks no one really knew what was going on,” Strasburg said.
“From my perspective, he was like a god to me growing up. Just how much he did for San Diego and for baseball all over the country. You never would have thought that that’d be the way it would happen.”
Strasburg grew up in San Diego when Gwynn was in his prime as the greatest hitter of an entire baseball generation. The pitcher remembers first watching him play as a kid.
“I was a fan first,” he said. “I was probably four years old when I first started watching the Padres and he was my favorite player from the first game. It just so happens that our lives seemed to intertwine before I made it to the big leagues. It’s just pretty tough to swallow right now.”
Fourteen years later, as a college freshman at San Diego State University, Strasburg would get to know Gwynn on a personal level. Gwynn was his mentor, a father figure, and played a pivotal role in his development as a top major league prospect.
When Strasburg arrived at SDSU in 2007, it was right before Gwynn was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Gwynn’s legend was about to be cemented, and Strasburg was in awe. Gwynn, however, quickly set an unexpected tone.
“This was a guy who put other people before himself,” Strasburg said. “I just remember the first day I was on campus at San Diego State. One of the first things he said was ‘Yea, I’m going to the Hall of Fame this year, but I’m just your coach.’ There’s just so many things that I’m never going to forget from my time playing for him. He’s impacted so many players over the course of his career and I’m just blessed to be one of them.”
Strasburg’s eyes welled up on Tuesday as he faced a large contingent of media members. He spoke for nearly five minutes and kept his composure as he talked about what he learned from Mr. Padre.
“It started with just how to be a man, how to handle the ups and downs. Not everything goes your way in life and certainly not in this game. I think that’s one of the biggest things from a personal perspective. I struggle with that. He really helped me understand that it’s not necessarily the results, it’s the work that you put in every single day. That’s what matters at the end of the day.”
Gwynn coached Strasburg for three years at San Diego State before the latter became the most heralded pitching prospect of a generation. The Nationals drafted Strasburg No. 1 overall in 2009 and brought him up to debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates a year later on June 8, 2010.
Gwynn was there, of course, and sat with Strasburg’s family as the young right-hander set an MLB rookie record with 14 strikeouts. It was a special night for not only Strasburg, but for the game of baseball, and there the Hall of Famer was, providing analysis as it played out.
“It’s funny,” Strasburg said. “I got family a couple hours down south in Virginia. I was talking to my great uncle and he’s not doing great health-wise. But we were sitting there talking and he was saying ‘that was so cool watching that game when I had Tony Gwynn sitting next to me, telling me about everything you were doing out there.’
“Coach, he became part of my family as well. He wasn’t going to miss that and I thought it was just a special experience for my family specifically to be there watching my debut with this legend back in San Diego.”
Strasburg is active as a former San Diego State player, often going back for charity events and Aztecs basketball games in the offseason. Each year he would try to see Gwynn when he got the chance. This last offseason, however, he didn’t get to spend as much time with him as he usually would.
“It became pretty tough here the last couple of years with health issues and everything. But every time I came into San Diego I made sure to try to stop by and say hello. Obviously I would come by a lot in the offseason. This last offseason was probably the least amount I was able to see him, actually. It’s just unfortunate this time around hit him pretty hard.”
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