'Mr. San Diego' Will Be Sorely Missed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the announcement was made, it was not a surprise. But it was definitely a shock.

Fans and civic leaders alike reacted with sadness Thursday to word that Tony Gwynn, after 20 years with the San Diego Padres, will retire at the end of the season.

"Tony Gwynn isn't just Mr. Padre, he's Mr. San Diego," said Dennis Rudd, a civilian employee of the Navy, wearing a Padres T-shirt with Gwynn's No. 19 on the back. "He's the one person everyone in town respects."

If ever there was a perfect fit between a city and an athlete, it was between San Diego and Gwynn: the kid from Long Beach who came for college and stayed to become a civic treasure.

And he did so in a way that San Diegans admire: with perseverance and longevity. This is not a city where the one-hit wonder, the 20-something whiz kid or the IPO millionaire are the civic ideal.

The beach image is misleading. The weather is balmy but the work ethic is strong in this city founded by sturdy Midwesterners.

"Tony is the perfect poster child for how San Diegans prefer to see themselves--committed to work, yet laid-back," said George Mitrovich, president of the City Club of San Diego. "With Tony, it's more than an image, it's reality."

"Tony Gwynn is famous but he has never acted like a big-shot celebrity," said Sheila Wright of Carlsbad. "When your son picked Tony as his favorite player, you never had to worry about him getting bad ideas about life."

Gwynn was a baseball and basketball star at San Diego State in the late 1970s. He joined the Padres in 1982.

Two seasons later Gwynn had won the first of his eight batting titles and the team was in the World Series for the first time.

To the city, always sensitive at being dismissed by outsiders, the World Series was proof that San Diego was taking its rightful place among major cities and Gwynn was a major reason.

"In politics and sports, timing is everything," said political consultant John Dadian. "Tony and San Diego grew up together. He was becoming a future Hall-of-Famer just as San Diego was maturing and becoming one of the nation's great cities."

Other athletes became free agents and sought ever more lucrative contracts in places that San Diegans are said to deplore, like Los Angeles and New York, but Gwynn remained.

"Tony is a true San Diegan: He believes living in San Diego is more important than making more money living somewhere else," said former journalist John Freeman. "Tony remained loyal to San Diego, and the city loved him for it."

Author George Will, who profiled Gwynn in his book "Men At Work," said the closeness of Gwynn and San Diego speaks well of both. "It's rare, and becoming rarer, that one man is so identified with a franchise and a city as Tony is with San Diego and the Padres," said Will.

San Diego's isolation--geographically and culturally--makes it unusual among baseball cities, giving it an enclosed feel that can breed a closeness with individual athletes, Will said.

"In larger cities with more distractions, an athlete might not attract as much attention," Will said. "San Diego, it has been said famously, is hemmed in by Mexico to the south, the mountains to the east, the ocean to the west, and Vin Scully [Dodger announcer] to the north. It was perfect for Tony Gwynn."

Flashy play and trashy talk might sell in other locales, but early-to-bed San Diego prefers its athletes, and its politicians, to stay accessible, modest and squeaky clean. Gwynn, with his sunny, generous personality and infectious laugh, fits the bill.

"There are a lot of athletes who would not do well in San Diego," said attorney Bob Brewer. "But Tony had a unique ability to understand San Diego and to appreciate it."

The Padres are finding other players to take Gwynn's spot in right field. Filling his shoes as role model and leader of various charitable causes will be more difficult.

"There will never be another like him," said Gary Schons, senior assistant California attorney general in the San Diego office.

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