David White: Tony Gwynn's death jolts ex-major league teammate — Hanford's Tim Scott

Special to The BeeJune 21, 2014 

Tim Scott grabbed some couch inside his Hanford home, his 47-year-old body resting from a day's patrol at the prison yard, when the television screen gave him a violent jolt of mortality.

Tony Gwynn was dead. He was only 54 years old. He was just human, after all.

That's a tough pitch to take for his former big league baseball teammates, who don't feel too young but sure ain't that old.

"The older you get, you start seeing people you know pass away, it makes you sad," said Scott, who is 17 years removed from a major league baseball pitcher's mound.

"I'm not old by any means, but guys who are just a couple years older than me, who were professional athletes, and they're dying …

"It really does make you think."

June 1991 was as if it just happened in Scott's mind, as he watched the Gwynn news fill his TV room Monday.

Scott was a rookie pitcher back then, a 24-year-old Hanford hand getting his big league welcome with the San Diego Padres. Gwynn was 7 years older and already a gentle giant of a swinger. Scott always remembers seeing Gwynn already at the park when he pulled up, and still at the cage when he left.

"There's times it feels so long ago," Scott said, "but when I heard about Tony's passing, it does feel like it was just yesterday."

Scott calls him the best hitter of the past 50 years. He says no one worked harder at being great than Gwynn. If Hall of Fame credentials added longevity to life, Gwynn should have lived long enough to see his children's children make their big league debut.

And now, Gwynn is gone. He didn't have a swinging chance against mouth cancer. A week earlier, it was former Dodgers and A's pitcher Bob Welch in an obituary. He was 57.

These are guys who chewed or drank and didn't listen to anyone who warned them otherwise. Because, to be a big league baseball player is to be on top of the world, and to be young is to be impervious to the graveyard's reach.

Except they're not. They're just like the rest of us guys who blow out our calves every time we sign up for a slow-pitch church softball league. It just takes world-class athletes longer to realize their human condition, whereas the rest of us figure out we aren't immortal by the time we break 30.

"We constantly had people come to spring training, ex-ballplayers who had some type of oral cancer and they showed all these surgeries they had," Scott said. "They really tried to get people away from smokeless tobacco but, as you know, most guys playing baseball like to chew their tobacco.

"They don't always think about it."

Why would they? We made them feel immortal. We cheered them on as modern-day super heroes, who were bigger, stronger and faster than we would ever be. We remember Willie Mays as a New York Giant, never a New York Met.

Of course they felt invincible. We insisted on it. We want our Tony Gwynns to never feel the aches and pains of middle age like we do after a Saturday afternoon doing yard work.

Only, that simply isn't the case. When their careers are over, and the big-league contracts dry up, they have to work hard at living, just like the rest of us. Their bodies fail, just like ours do.

Guys like Scott see their former teammates get buried when they're just 54 years old.

They really are just human, after all.

The columnist can be reached at dwhite@sbcglobal.net and on Twitter @bydavidwhite.

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