Washington Nationals' starter Stephen Strasburg is taking the loss of his idol and former San Diego State University baseball coach Tony Gwynn hard. Gwynn, 54, passed away on Monday after battling salivary gland cancer which was diagnosed in 2009.
The veteran of 20 major league seasons, who was drafted out of SDSU in the 3rd Round of the 1981 Draft, returned to his alma mater as an unpaid volunteer in 2001 and then became head coach in 2003.
From 2007-2009, he guided Stephen Strasburg's collegiate career as the 18-20-year-old right-hander went from an undrafted high school pitcher to the no.1 overall pick in the 2009 Draft after a junior year with the Aztecs which saw him go (13-1) with a 1.32 ERA, 13 walks (1.57 BB/9) and 195 Ks (16.10 K/9) in 109 IP.
Gwynn was also in Nationals Park sitting with the pitcher's family when Strasburg made his MLB debut on June 8, 2010, striking out 14 Pittsburgh Pirates in a dominating performance that introduced the top prospect in the game to anyone in the national audience that wasn't already following the phenom's meteoric rise.
Gwynn told MLB Network Radio hosts Jim Duquette and Kevin Kennedy that he was impressed with the way Strasburg handled the tremendous pressure of a debut that the entire baseball world was watching.
"[I] thought that [Strasburg] handled the nerves really well, and did a great job, kept his team in the game, and then once he got the...I mean...14 punchouts in  pitches, it was the kind of performance that I'd seen a lot but that the rest of the country got a chance to see how special he could really be."
"It's funny," Strasburg said today when he spoke to reporters about the loss of his mentor. "I've got family a couple hours down south in Virginia. I was talking to my great uncle and he's not doing great health-wise. But we were sitting there talking and he was saying, 'That was so cool watching that game when I had Tony Gwynn sitting next to me, telling me about everything you were doing out there.' Coach, he became part of my family as well. He wasn't going to miss that and I thought it was just a special experience for my family specifically to be there watching my debut with this legend back in San Diego."
The legend from San Diego was Strasburg's favorite player from the moment he started watching his hometown Padres as a kid.
"I was a fan first," he explained. "I was probably four years old when I first started watching the Padres and he was my favorite player from the first game. It just so happens that our lives seemed to intertwine before I made it to the big leagues."
The loss, he said, "It's just pretty tough to swallow right now."
"It's tough because the last couple of weeks no one really knew what was going on. From my perspective, he was like a god to me growing up. Just how much he did for San Diego and for baseball all over the country. You never would have thought that that'd be the way it would happen."
As Strasburg explained it, Gwynn went from being his boyhood hero as a player, to being his coach and then eventually his mentor.
"This was a guy who put other people before himself," the 25-year-old righty explained. "I just remember the first day I was on campus at San Diego State. One of the first things he said was 'Yea, I'm going to the Hall of Fame this year, but I'm just your coach.' There's just so many things that I'm never going to forget from my time playing for him. He's impacted so many players over the course of his career and I'm just blessed to be one of them."
In addition to what he was able to impart about their shared profession, Strasburg said Gwynn taught him about growing up on and off the field.
"It started with just how to be a man," he said. "How to handle the ups and downs. Not everything goes your way in life and certainly not in this game. I think that's one of the biggest things from a personal perspective. I struggle with that. He really helped me understand that it's not necessarily the results, it's the work that you put in every single day. That's what matters at the end of the day."
To lose that voice and that sort of guidance is something that certainly seems to have had a profound impact of the Nationals' starter.
"It's definitely a blow," Strasburg admitted. "It was tough waking up yesterday 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.
"It became pretty tough here the last couple of years with health issues and everything. But every time I came into San Diego I made sure to try to stop by and say hello. Obviously I would come by a lot in the offseason.
"This last offseason was probably the least amount I was able to see him, actually. It's just unfortunate this time around hit him pretty hard."