KEISSER: Gwynns bask in baseball's circle
Serendipity runs in the Gwynn family like sweet honey runs in beehives. There are zero degrees of separation whenever something happens in this family.
Tony Gwynn Sr., the Poly High product and Hall of Famer, made his major league debut in 1982, the same year that his son Tony Jr., made his life debut, born in Long Beach on Oct. 4.
Tony Sr. got his first major league hit on July 19 of 1982. Tony Jr. got his first major league hit for the Milwaukee Brewers 24 years later to the day, on July 19, 2006.
The biggest hit in Tony Jr.'s career was a one-on, two-out, game-tying RBI triple in the ninth inning of the penultimate game of the 2007 season that kept his dad's team, the San Diego Padres, from clinching the National League wild card.
The hit came off Trevor Hoffman – born in nearby Bellflower – who was Tony Jr.'s closest adult friend of all the Padres when he was just known as "Little T," Tony's kid and the resident clubhouse rat.
The Padres would finish the season tied for the wild card and lose it to Colorado thanks to the timely hitting of a shortstop fairly well known around Long Beach State named Troy Tulowitzki.
Gwynn Jr. eventually found himself in a Padres jersey just like his dad, hitting .270 in 2009 before injuries messed up 2010 and led the Padres to release him last December. He then signed with the Dodgers, the team his father and uncle rooted for as a kid, and the team that drafted and employed his uncle, Chris, for seven of his 10 seasons in the majors.
Tony Jr. was in Dodger Stadium for the last game of 1996, the only year his dad and uncle were on the same team, the Padres, when Chris' two-run double in the 11th inning gave the Padres the NL West title.
And today he's the Dodgers' starting left fielder, the position his uncle played most often during his Dodger career, and wearing No. 10, which was his uncle's jersey number.
"It's pretty cool," Tony Jr. said recently about this never-ending circle of baseball life.
His dad and uncle never spent a lot of time regaling him with stories about their love for the Dodgers as kids. By the time he was a teenager, the family was seriously embedded in San Diego.
"They came up in L.A. and were Dodger fans, but they didn't talk about it as much as what it was to play baseball as kids," Tony Jr. said.
"I was born here, but we moved to San Diego soon after. I'd come back to Long Beach in the summers to visit my grandmother and play summer ball."
Tony Jr. was destined to play for the Padres, dad's team, although it didn't work out as originally planned. The Padres were going to draft Tony Jr., who starred at Poway High School and his dad's alma mater, San Diego State, in the 2003 draft, but the Brewers nabbed him with the 39th pick, two picks ahead of the Padres.
His minor league career blossomed in 2006 when he raked for Nashville in Triple-A, but the Brewers kept him on a shuttle between Milwaukee and the minors from 2006 to 2008, giving him just 264 at-bats in three seasons.
The Padres acquired him for 2009.
"It's a completely different thing to be playing for the team your father played for," Tony Jr. said. "There was a lot of prestige in that."
His dad was sharp enough, though, to remind his son that baseball is still a business.
The Padres' release came at the same time his dad was undergoing treatment for cancer of a salivary gland, treatment that was harrowing and left the entire family fraught.
Tony Jr. found relief just by preparing for the 2011 season with the Dodgers. The club began spring training without a left fielder after Manny Ramirez's issues with female fertility drugs.
"I usually work out with my dad in the offseason, but this year was different," Tony Jr. said. "I think it helped because I needed to get my mind off what my dad was going through if I was going to make the team.
"It helped when my dad started to feel better in March, when we were in spring training. Me and my dad are as close as it gets. You never think it could happen to someone close to you."
The Dodgers are a mess of a franchise right now because of a new manager and a morally and fiscally bankrupt owner, but Gwynn has become one of their biggest contributors whenever the team wins a game.
After a miserable May in which he started just four times and endured an 0-for-21 slump, he went 8-for-22 in early June. Starting with the June 26 game against the Angels, Gwynn has hit .320 (24-for-75) with eight runs scored, five RBIs and eight steals in nine attempts over the last 21 games.
Considering the team has scored three runs or less in 14 of those 21 games (and a run or less eight times), Gwynn and Matt Kemp have been the only live bats of the summer.
Tony Sr., having recovered from the surgery and chemo for his cancer, keeps track of his son's games via MLB's streaming video, and said back in May that his son will blossom if he ever gets the chance to play every day.
"He's better suited mentally to play better than he did last year," Tony Sr. said. "If he ever gets a chance to be an everyday player, he'll win a couple of Gold Gloves."
"It's a different experience to play for the Dodgers," Tony Jr. said. "You're part of one of the great franchises in baseball and you feel that when you put on the uniform. For me, the chance to wear my uncle's number is a nice fit."
But then everything seems to fit in the Gwynn family, a continuous circle of baseball life.