For some, June 16 will be just another day.
But for those who had the privilege of knowing, playing with or playing for Tony Gwynn, Friday will have an entirely different meaning.
“I could go on for days with stories about that man,” Bubba Derby said last month about Gwynn, the Hall of Famer who died three years ago Friday at the age of 54 after a lengthy battle with salivary gland cancer.
The current Biloxi Shuckers pitcher got to know one of baseball’s greatest hitters during his time as an underclassman at San Diego State University, where Gwynn coached from 2002 until his death in 2014.
“I had him my freshman and sophomore years and he was one of the most generous people I have ever met,” Derby said. “He wasn’t a yeller. He was the quiet type.”
An Arcadia, California, native, Derby remembers being star-struck by Gwynn — at least at first. The affable demeanor of the San Diego Padres legend, however, helped melt away any imaginary walls his players had constructed in their minds.
“After you see him every day and get to know him better you, you don’t look at him like that big shot anymore — until obviously he starts getting in the cage and hitting line drives the other way,” Derby said. “It gets to a point where you look at him and he’s almost a father figure. You listen to what he says.
“He would tell story after story with the hitters. The pitchers, we’d sit there and listen in because you want to hear those kinds of stories. Those are stories you’ll remember.”
BP with Coach Gwynn
During one particular batting practice in 2013, Gwynn was getting progressively more upset with the Aztec hitters.
As Derby recalls, it was early in the week — “Just another day,” he said — but the guys were dragging.
“The hitters were pulling a lot of balls and he was not a fan of that. Look at his games and how he would hit — he’d go the other way, slap balls here and there, just gap to gap,” Derby said of Gwynn, who finished his 20-year career with 3,141 hits and a .338 batting average. “He was just getting fed up. It got to a point where he yelled ‘STOP!’ That’s when everyone was like whoa because he doesn’t do that. He went over to a guy and said, ‘hey, give me your batting gloves.’ He put on batting gloves, got a bat, stood in the cage and had our other coach throw him batting practice.
“He probably took about seven swings and seven line drives right over the shortstop right toward me. I didn’t even move because I was just in shock. I’m watching one of the greatest hitters of all time take batting practice. He was fresh off of chemo treatment that day and he just gets up, goes out there with no energy and starts poking balls the other way with ease. It just shows you who he was and how good he actually was. I’ll never forget that.”
Following Gwynn’s death, the Aztecs were invited to his funeral. It turned out to be a who’s who of baseball royalty befitting one of the game’s purest hitters.
“It was really hard. I got to go to the funeral and service. It was one of those experiences where you’re sitting there in awe because these guys who are walking through... Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, Barry Bonds, Cal Ripken Jr. is there,” Derby said. “They’re walking by you and saying their condolences.”
Gwynn’s fight with cancer helped spark change in Major League Baseball, which included a smokeless tobacco ban — among players with no current MLB service time; current MLBers were grandfathered in — in its most recent labor agreement.
Gwynn’s battle stuck with Derby.
“I had tried (smokeless tobacco), but it really put a bad taste in my mouth when I saw how much he struggled,” Derby said. “Every day I’d talk to him and ask how he was, and he’d be honest. ‘Eh, not so good today. Tired today.’ It was hard watching him go through that. After watching him those two years and what he struggled through, I promised myself I’d never dip in my entire life.
“I’ve stuck with it pretty strong.”
Derby ended up posting three strong seasons for the Aztecs, first as a closer before moving to the rotation. By the time the Oakland Athletics drafted Derby in the sixth round of the 2015 draft, he had already built a 20-11 record along with 12 saves and a 3.28 ERA. He credits Gwynn for much of his success.
“Having (Gwynn) was such a blessing for me because I learned so much from him, picking his brain on what hitters are thinking in the box and use that to my advantage, that’s something we’d talk about all the time,” Derby said.
Derby was later traded along with Shuckers catcher Jacob Nottingham to the Milwaukee Brewers for Khris Davis, which is how he ended up in Biloxi.
Thus far, Derby’s 2017 season has been one to remember. Promoted to the Shuckers prior to the season, Derby is 2-1 with a 2.68 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 43 2/3 innings. Derby earned a spot start last week with Triple-A Colorado Springs and more than held his own. The right-hander pitched six scoreless innings while allowing just three hits and striking out three in the 11-0 win. Derby was returned to Biloxi shortly after.