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San Diego stunned by passing of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn

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SEATTLE - Bud Black first got to know Tony Gwynn when they were teammates playing college baseball at San Diego State.

No matter how early Black tried to get to the park for practice or workouts, he could never arrive before Gwynn.

"He was always there. Whenever I was there, he was there," Black said. "He loved the baseball field."

Now the Padres manager, Black shared memories of his former college teammate Monday before San Diego opened a two-game series in Seattle. Gwynn, a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest athletes in San Diego's history, died Monday of oral cancer, a disease he attributed to years of chewing tobacco. He was 54.

Gwynn's passing came as a surprise even though many with the organization knew his health was not good. For Black, his relationship with Gwynn went back to the late 1970s when they were teammates for the Aztecs.

Black recalled hearing Gwynn's recognizable laugh in hotel rooms during college road trips and driving down to the San Diego Sports Arena to watch Gwynn play basketball for the Aztecs.

But even as he developed into a Hall of Fame hitter with the Padres, Black said Gwynn retained the same qualities he had when they were college teammates.

"He didn't change. All of his success as a player, all the accolades he got moving forward in his career, he truly did remain the same guy," Black said. "Extremely, extremely humble. Didn't want to talk about himself. Always changed the subject if the topic was steering his direction. A great guy."

San Diego bench coach Dave Roberts played against and with Gwynn in the majors. But some of his strongest memories for Roberts — a San Diego native — was being in the minors and spending his off-season working out at San Diego State with Gwynn.

"I knew he wasn't doing well, but as far as the finality of it, I was definitely taken aback," Roberts said.

The Mariners planned to honour Gwynn with a moment of silence before Monday's game and his number, "19," was spread in the dirt between the shortstop and third baseman — the spot Gwynn sent many of his 3,141 hits through.

Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon considered Gwynn a close friend and mentor.

"I look back now and sometimes you take things for granted but to think this guy took time out of his day every time we came to town or they came to town to talk to someone like me about hitting and the game of baseball that just blows your mind," McClendon said. "To think that we lost him at the age of 54 is really, really tragic.

There was also the odd connection with Seattle reliever Joe Beimel, whose career began as a starting pitcher with Pittsburgh in 2001. One of his starts came against San Diego in Gwynn's final season.

On Aug. 11, 2001, Gwynn hit the final home run of his career off Beimel. The pitcher remembered it was a hanging slider that Gwynn didn't miss.

"I actually took pride that I gave up the final home run," Beimel said. "I kept watching the box scores the rest of the season to see if he would have another one.

"It wasn't that cool at the time and now it's pretty cool," he said.

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