FAIRFIELD — Like countless others, Ron Barnes was deeply saddened by the death of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn on Monday.
Barnes, a Fairfield resident, umpired several of Gwynn’s games in the minor and major leagues, as well as at the collegiate level when the former San Diego Padre great was named head coach of the San Diego State baseball team in 2002.
Barnes recalled one of his earliest encounters with Gwynn in 1981 when both were in the Class A Northwest League – essentially for first-year players – in Barnes’ second year in organized baseball, Gwynn’s first.
Gwynn’s Walla Walla Padres were playing at the Eugene Emeralds.
“He’s the leadoff hitter . . . and the very first pitch of the game he gets a triple,” Barnes said. “The Emeralds manager, Greg Riddoch, who later managed Tony with the Padres (1990-92) appealed that he missed first base. I had Tony missing first base and called him out.
“He charged at me and his manager (Bill Bryk) got him away from me.”
By sticking to his decision, Barnes didn’t hurt Gwynn’s average too much – it would’ve been .337 instead of .331 if the triple had stood – and by the middle of 1982 he was with the San Diego Padres for good.
By the time he retired in 2001, Gwynn had a .338 career batting average, eight batting titles and 3,141 career hits.
A year after Gwynn was named head coach at San Diego State, Barnes wrapped up his 21-year career as an umpire in professional baseball, returning to his roots at the college and high school level.
Umping in the Mountain West and West Coast conferences, he occasionally did games with Gwynn’s Aztecs.
“Years have passed and Tony would say, ‘Ron, I touched first base,’ and I’d say, ‘No, Tony, you missed first base’” Barnes said. “The last 10 years when I’d ump San Diego State, we’d always joke about it.”
Not surprisingly, Barnes considers Gwynn “one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen,”
It all started with his approach at the home plate.
“Tony Gwynn knew the strike zone,” Barnes said. “He was very fair and very respectful to umpires. I had him (in a game) the last year and we just go way back. We had a mutual respect, obviously.”
According to Barnes, Gwynn was just that way – with everyone.
“Most importantly, he was a good person,” Barnes said. “His baseball stats speak for themselves. He was a good person and good for college baseball. I was very sad to see him pass away.”
Reach Paul Farmer at 425-4646, ext. 264, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pfarmerdr.