WASHINGTON—When Stephen Strasburg took the mound for the first time as a Washington National, a sold-out crowd of 40,315 watched in awe as the 2009 No. 1 overall pick dazzled with 14 strikeouts and showed fans there was hope for the future of baseball in D.C.
But one man in the crowd that night wasn’t a fan, at least of the team. That man was Tony Gwynn Jr., the Hall of Fame slugger who played all 20 of his seasons in the major leagues with the San Diego Padres. Strasburg, a native of Southern California, rooted for Gwynn and the Padres growing up before playing for the man himself at San Diego State.
Gwynn and Strasburg grew close working together at SDSU. He became Strasburg’s biggest mentor, his “second father” as he once remarked. Yes, Gwynn was a larger-than-life Hall of Famer. But to Strasburg, he was just “Coach.” His character stood out to him and it gave him a model for which to strive toward.
“He will always be Mr. Padre,” Strasburg said of Gwynn in a press conference at Nationals Park on Tuesday. “The impact that he had in the community is something I’ll never forget. And I think, as a kid, that’s what really drew me to him as being my favorite player, was that he was always there in right field for 20 years.”
Now, Strasburg is taking a similar path to that which Gwynn walked. When he signed a seven-year, $245 million contract with the Nationals at the Winter Meetings, he ensured that he’d be playing for Washington through his age-37 season—essentially tying him to the organization for the rest of his career.
“It’s really, really rare in baseball that someone can go and establish a legacy of his choice,” his agent Scott Boras said. “I can’t think of many players that can be the No. 1 draft pick, have a beautiful wife, lovely children, win a world championship and get to carry out his career, as [was the] goal of his mentor in Tony Gwynn, to be a legacy player for a franchise.”
The title of “Mr. National” is already held by Ryan Zimmerman, who remains a free agent this offseason but has spoken at length about his willingness to return to the only club he’s ever known. But Strasburg has laid the groundwork for a Hall of Fame resume should he continue pitching at a high level over the second half of his career.
There’s now no doubt that he’ll be working on that resume anywhere but D.C.
“This is a pitching organization and we felt that he’s one of the best pitchers in the league,” Rizzo said. “He was our own, we know him best and he was a guy that we focused in on to be a National for life.”
Gwynn died of cancer in 2014, but his legacy in San Diego will live forever. After signing a record deal with the Nationals, Strasburg, Hall of Famer or not, has ensured his will do the same in Washington.
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