Gwynn got away with doing good
June 25, 2014Tony Gwynn used his status as a local hero to get away with good rather than to get away with bad. Because Tony Gwynn was Tony Gwynn, he could put the long-term interests of the San Diego State University baseball program ahead of short-term, win-loss records and the Aztec baseball fans would tolerate his initial losing seasons.
The year after Tony Gwynn retired as a player, he didn't earn any money - he was a volunteer assistant coach at San Diego State University in preparation for taking over the head coach job the following year after Jim Dietz retired.
During Tony Gwynn's first year as the SDSU head coach in 2003, he suspended a starting infielder and a starting pitcher for substance use. He likely would have won the Mountain West Conference championship that year had he not been without those two key players, but he sent a message that the Aztecs would have standards.
In 2005 San Diego State played an exhibition game against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Tony Gwynn's pre-game comment was that the Aztecs weren't going to win, but that the game would show the players what it would take to get to the next level. Tony Gwynn also upgraded SDSU's non-conference schedule, depriving the Aztecs of a few wins in the statistics but upgrading the level of competition for the SDSU players.
Tony Gwynn's selection to the Hall of Fame in 2007 revived his hero status and bought time for him to take the Aztecs program in the long-term right direction. That year the former Long Beach Poly High School baseball player who went unnoticed by major league scouts out of high school had a freshman from eastern San Diego County who was a late bloomer and was ignored by the scouts out of high school. During the next two years the scouts would learn about Stephen Strasburg.
By 2009, it was clear that Stephen Strasburg wouldn't be playing at SDSU as a senior unless he couldn't come to terms with the major league team that drafted him. The Aztecs reached the NCAA tournament for the first time this century and won 41 games - including 28 in which Strasburg did not get the decision. After the season Strasburg's agent, Scott Boras, made the comment that he encouraged players to play for San Diego State because Tony Gwynn wouldn't overuse a college pitcher. While the Aztecs had the luxury of Addison Reed in the bullpen that year, Scott Boras essentially said that Tony Gwynn was more interested in preserving the future of his players than in winning games in the short term.
Addison Reed was drafted after the 2010 season. Tony Gwynn opted to rebuild the Aztecs with freshmen rather than seek the quick fix of junior college transfers. That hindered the Aztecs' record for the next couple of years.
Tony Gwynn's premature death did make him the Aztecs' coach for life, and in his final season SDSU had another 40-win year and reached the NCAA tournament.
Because Tony Gwynn was such a hero, the Aztec fans put up with all the early losses. That gave Tony Gwynn the time he needed to turn around the SDSU baseball program. What he did as a Major League Baseball player helped contribute to his ability to do what he did in college, but his baseball success extended beyond his playing career.