Meacham played big role in Gwynn's legacy
Chance encounter during SD State visit set legend on baseball path
OAKLAND -- His senior year in high school, Bobby Meacham was on a recruiting visit to San Diego State, sitting in the office of baseball coach Jim Dietz, when Tony Gwynn walked down the hall and exchanged pleasantries with Dietz.
"I asked Coach, 'Is that Tony Gwynn?'" Meacham remembered Monday. "He said it was. I told him I didn't know Gwynn was on the team. He said, 'He isn't. He's on the basketball team.' I told him, 'He's the best baseball player I had ever played against.'"
The rest, so they say, is history.
Gwynn passed away Monday, at the age of 54, the victim of cancer.
Gwynn will be forever remembered as one of the greatest hitters in the history of Major League Baseball, having won eight batting titles for the San Diego Padres and earned induction in the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Give an assist to Meacham.
Had it not been for that chance encounter during Meacham's recruiting visit, Gwynn most likely would have never played baseball in college, much less been a third-round Draft choice of the Padres, with whom he played 20 years at the big league level.
"Tony loved basketball," Meacham said in a phone interview from Manchester, N.H., where he is the manager of Toronto's Double-A affiliate, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. "He wanted to play in the NBA."
And Gwynn most likely could have played in the NBA. He was an All-Western Athletic Conference point guard who was a 10th-round draft pick of the San Diego Clippers in 1981 and probably would have been drafted higher except by that time his stock was rising in baseball, and he was drafted by the Padres.
Meacham even played into that.
Jack McKeon, the general manager of the Padres at the time, would take in San Diego State baseball games before Spring Training opened, and in 1981 he was particularly interested in Meacham, an eventual first-round pick of St. Louis, the eighth player taken that year.
The Padres also played San Diego State in an exhibition game just before the season opened, and "I was sitting with the athletic director," McKeon recalled several years ago, "watching this guy hit line drives all over the ballpark. I told him I had seen the team earlier in the year and didn't remember the guy. He told me it was Tony Gwynn. He played basketball and just joined the baseball team five days ago."
Gwynn became a focus for McKeon leading up to the Draft.
Meacham, who attended Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., and Gwynn, who attended Long Beach Poly High School, played against each other in both the school year and in summer leagues.
And Meacham lobbied Gwynn to be his teammate at San Diego State.
The problem was his basketball scholarship was based on him not playing any other sport. After his freshman season, however, head coach Tim Vezie was fired.
"I told him, 'You don't have a coach so come out for baseball,'" remembered Meacham, "'and we'll lobby the new coach to let you play.'"
The timing was good. Dietz needed reinforcements. Two of his outfielders were injured when an automobile hit the bicycles they were riding.
"Coach Dietz saw him hit in the cage and shag in the outfield and welcomed him on the team," said Meacham. "He struck a deal with the new basketball coach [Smokey Gaines] to let him play.
"Talk about timing. If San Diego State had a good basketball team, Tony probably never gets to play [baseball]."
But then, if Meacham hadn't been recruited to play at San Diego State, the idea of Gwynn playing college baseball and eventually in the big leagues would have never been broached.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.