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Gwynn was 'family' to Strasburg

Wednesday - 6/18/2014, 2:39pm  ET

Stephen Strasburg pitched for Tony Gwynn at San Diego State University. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

Gwynn on Strasburg

Tony Gwynn discusses Stephen Strasburg in an interview with Nationals broadcaster Charlie Slowes from 2010.


WASHINGTON -- San Diego native Stephen Strasburg will not make his next start for the Nationals until Friday. He will be excused if he does so with a heavy heart.

As the baseball community mourns the loss this week of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, Strasburg is grieving the passing of his mentor, coach and friend.

"He was like a God to me growing up," Strasburg recalled Tuesday from the Nationals clubhouse, one day after Gwynn died at age 54 from a bout with cancer inside his salivary gland.

"I was a fan first. I was probably four years old when I first started watching the [San Diego] Padres and he was my favorite player from that first game. It just so happens that our lives seemed to intertwine."

Gwynn spent his entire 20-year Major League career with the Padres, retiring in 2001 when Strasburg was 13. Gwynn made 15 All-Star teams, won eight batting titles and retired with the second highest career batting average since 1938, behind only Ted Williams.

"It was a marvel to see him take batting practice," said Nationals manager Matt Williams, who played with Gwynn on five National League All-Star teams in the 1990s.

"He could do anything he wanted to do with a baseball. He could take any pitch and hit it wherever he wanted. He's probably the best pure hitter, certainly of our generation and maybe of all-time."

Gwynn was celebrated as such in July 2007 when he was inducted into the Pro Baseball Hall of Fame along with Baltimore Orioles great Cal Ripken, Jr. By then, Gwynn had already been the head baseball coach at his alma mater, San Diego State University, for five years. Among his players at SDSU was the longtime Padres-fan- turned-pitching-prospect named Stephen Strasburg.

"I remember the first day that I was on campus at San Diego State, one of the first things that he said was, ‘Yeah, I'm going to the Hall of Fame this year, but I'm just your coach."

In the end, Gwynn became so much more for the teenage pitcher.

"He became part of my family," Strasburg said, fighting back tears.

"There are so many things that I'm never going to forget -- just my time playing for him. He's impacted so many players over the course of the years and I'm just so blessed to be one of them."

Ten of Gwynn's players at SDSU have reached the Major Leagues, including his son Tony Jr., but none were more prominent than Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLB Draft.

"I don't think in my 20-some-odd years in baseball that I've seen the hype over a guy like with Stephen," Gwynn told the Nationals Radio Network in 2010, less than two weeks before Strasburg's much anticipated Major League debut.

"He's special. He's a different breed. I haven't seen anything like it to be honest. He's a young guy who kind of gets the whole package."

In that same interview in 2010, Gwynn said that he viewed all of his players "like they're my sons." Fittingly, Gwynn sat with Strasburg's family at his first career big league game on June 8, 2010.

"I remember talking to my great uncle," Strasburg said. "And he's like ‘Wow that was so cool watching your game. I had Tony Gwynn sitting right next to me telling me everything about what you were doing out there…' I thought that it was just such a special experience for my family specifically to be there watching my debut with this legend from back in San Diego."

Gwynn was very much "a genuine person," Williams said.

"Truly concerned about people, about his craft, his family, San Diegans and being part of that great organization. But from a competitor's standpoint, you knew that he was genuine. If he said hello and asked how you were doing, he meant it. He'll be dearly missed by a lot of folks."

Williams need look no further than Friday's starting pitcher.

"It's definitely a blow," Strasburg said. "It was tough waking up [Monday] on the off-day and getting the news. I've just been saying some prayers for the Gwynn family and obviously all the people back in San Diego who are mourning his loss as well."

Catch the Nationals and Houston Astros on Wednesday at 7:05 p.m. on WFED 1500AM. Pregame coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Nats on Deck with Charlie Slowes and Dave Jageler.

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