Cory Vaughn remembers trying to play a trick on Tony Gwynn his junior year at San Diego State.
Gwynn stepped into the batting cage and told players to call out a position midpitch. Each time, Gwynn hit the ball there.
Then Vaughn thought he’d be tricky and call out third base.
“I swear on my life he hits the ball right down the third-base line,” said Vaughn, now an outfielder for the Las Vegas 51s and the son of Gwynn’s former teammate and friend Greg Vaughn.
“I was like, ‘Oh, this dude’s the truth.’”
Players and coaches from both the Oklahoma City RedHawks and the 51s remembered the iconic hitter who lost his battle with cancer on Monday.
They also remembered Gwynn off the field as a better person than ballplayer.
“He really taught us how to play the game the right way, how to go about our business, how to work at our craft as far as hitting and playing defense and what-not,” said RedHawks infielder Erik Castro, who also played for Gwynn at SDSU. “Just as a human being, he was a class act. On and off the field, he was always doing stuff for players.”
Castro recalls teammates asking for letters of recommendation from Gwynn for jobs. After all, a recommendation from a Hall of Famer with 3,141 hits and a career .338 batting average can only increase the odds of being hired.
Gwynn also helped Castro out his first year in the pros by taking him into the SDSU equipment room and giving him anything he needed.
“Just little things that he didn’t have to do that was just part of his character that stuck out to me,” Castro said. “How he affected everyone in his life is what stuck with me the most.”
Vaughn had not spoken to Gwynn in a while, but he did say he talked to his father Monday.
Greg Vaughn played with Gwynn in San Diego from 1996-98 before being traded to Cincinnati before the 1999 season. They remained close, even as opponents.
“I was talking to my Pops and he was telling me how he really got his career going,” Cory Vaughn said. “I remember when my dad got traded in ’99, he would be sneaking in the cages with Tony Gwynn on the Padres — the other team — and they’d be hitting together. Tony would be helping my dad out, even when he was on the other team.”
Gwynn wasn’t always as nice to opponents.
He never struck out more than 40 times per season, constantly being a tough out for opposing pitchers.
“At that time, if the Padres were in a game and Tony Gwynn was coming up to bat, he wasn’t the one you wanted to face that’s for sure,” said Las Vegas manager Wally Backman, who played against Gwynn most of his career. “I think all pitchers would say that.”
Right on cue, Las Vegas pitching coach and former Cy Young Award winner Frank Viola chimed in, “For the record, he was 6 for 20 off of me.”
Gwynn’s impact may be felt more off the field moving forward.
RedHawks manager Tony DeFrancesco recently joined the team after a bout with cancer, something he said he thought about Monday morning when he learned the news.
Gwynn always attributed his cancer to using smokeless tobacco throughout his career.
That’s banned in the minor leagues, but Major League Baseball does not ban players from using it.
“I know it’s in the game,” Castro said. “I think that Major League Baseball should try to implement something to get it out of the game because we’re seeing it firsthand right now with Coach Gwynn losing his life to cancer. It’s just a shame and it shouldn’t happen to anybody. He had been battling it for three or four years now, but it’s definitely something that I think should be addressed in the game for sure.”