SAN DIEGO -- Tony Gwynn may be the single most important sports figure in history to a single community.
Gwynn began his career as a star baseball and basketball player at San Diego State and spent the last 12 years of his life as head coach of the baseball team. That served as neat bookends to his 20 years playing for the Padres.
With apologies to Dan Fouts, Junior Seau, Bill Walton and even Trevor Hoffman, San Diego has only one real icon, Tony Gwynn.
"I didn't even come close," Hoffman said after Thursday night's emotional tribute to the late Gwynn at Petco Park. "I didn't start my career here. I didn't finish here. I didn't go to college here and circle back and be a coach and what that means to walk on the Mesa and touch the student body and talk to the student body and be there for them. Yeah, you're going to be hard pressed to find anybody as significant as Tony Gwynn to a particular city."
Hoffman, who began his career with the Marlins, finished it with the Brewers, and in between had 552 of his National League record 601 saves in 16 years closing for the Padres, knows from which he speaks. The fans -- 23,229 -- came to say goodbye to the man known as Mr. Padre, waiting in long lines by the thousands hours before the gates opened, visiting the statue of Gwynn in the Park at the Park that is surrounded now by wreaths and memorabilia.
Gwynn passed away in the early morning hours of June 16 from the complications of a long battle with salivary gland cancer at nearby Pomerado Hospital in Poway, Calif. He was 54.
Gwynn's imprint on the community went far beyond his .338 lifetime batting average, eight NL batting titles, 3,141 hits and a plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame that will be there as long as there is a museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"He was special. I wouldn't presume to tell the fans of San Diego how great Tony Gwynn was on the field," said Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball's chief operating officer, one of the many speakers on Thursday night. "You had him. All 20 years. When you're around the game, you hear people talk about the baseball family. He was the perfect member of the baseball family."
Manfred went on to say that Gwynn was special, not only because of his Hall of Fame talent and devotion to the game, "but the values he came to represent."
Those values were evident to anyone who covered him from the time he came up to the Padres as a kid for good in late 1983 to the teammates he played with across the decades. And you can take that to the bank from someone who saw Gwynn's first hit, his last hit and most of them in between.
From Steve Garvey, who played with Gwynn from 1983-88, including the Padres' first trip to the World Series in 1984, a five-game loss to the Tigers.
"I think he was the consummate professional both on and off the field," Garvey said. "He was one of those rare athletes who was infectious. And it started with that smile. Only a few have it. Magic [Johnson] has it. I was fortunate to play his first five years with him in San Diego. After that he grew and matured and became a statesman of the game. For a teammate he was the wind beneath our wings. He was the guy who flew the plane when things were going well and when they weren't he lifted you higher."
From Hoffman, who played with Gwynn from 1993 to the five-time Gold Glove Award-winning right-fielder's retirement in 2001, including the sweep in the 1998 World Series by the Yankees.
"It was great to be able to hear so many words spoken about the man vs. the ballplayer," Hoffman said after the ceremony. "So rarely do you hear such things said about someone in such rarified air especially as a ballplayer. There's usually some deficiency in some area or another. That was not the case with Tony Gwynn. When you think of Tony you think of San Diego in the same breath. As much as he loved San Diego, the fans of San Diego loved him back."
The fans didn't need much chiding. Ted Leitner, the long-time Padres broadcaster and Thursday night's master of ceremonies, began the memorial by asking them to give Gwynn a standing ovation "one last time." They did so as if Gwynn had just pounded out another four-hit game. At the end, wiping away tears, Leitner asked the crowd to chant, "Ton-y, Ton-y," as if to conjure No. 19 coming out of the dugout for one final curtain call.
And with that, the lights were turned out in the ballpark where Gwynn never played a game and a single spotlight was directed on his retired 19, hanging above the green hitting eye in dead center field as a singer belted out her mournful rendition of "Amazing Grace."
Gwynn's career and his life seem now like a blip on the radar screen, having flashed across the sky like a comet, come and gone in an instant. Only its tail remains.
"To the fans, he loved you and appreciated you more than I can convey in words," John Boggs, Gwynn's agent and business manager for 30 years, told the crowd. "He loved the city of San Diego. He loved being an Aztec and he most definitely loved being a Padre. He was and always will be Mr. Padre."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.