Each day he arrives at the San Diego State locker room, Chase Calabuig has a conversation with a man who isn’t there.
Calabuig knows it isn’t real. It doesn’t need to be. It’s a comfort, a way for him to maintain a connection with the man he credits for his baseball career:
“Every time I walk in front of the lounge there’s a little monument of him and I kind of say ‘What’s up,’ because it was him that allowed me to play college baseball,” said Calabuig, the Aztecs’ senior right fielder. “Him that picked me out and said ‘I want you to come here and play for this team,’ and that gave me the opportunity to come in here and play baseball. So I thank him every day for it. I definitely feel a connection with him.”
It’s been almost four years since Gwynn died. His final recruiting class is now seniors, leading the way for a surging Aztecs team.
Three players remain from that final recruiting class: Calabuig, shortstop David Hensley and outfielder Denz’l Chapman. Lefthander Jacob Erickson, a redshirt in 2014, Gwynn’s final season before his death, is the lone remaining player to have actually played for Gwynn.
They are, in essence, the Final Four—the last Aztecs players with a direct connection to Tony Gwynn.
“I think, especially for me specifically, I want to do well for him,” Calabuig said. “He gave me the opportunity and I want to produce.
“So for me, and for a lot of those guys, it’s play for Tony, let’s keep the legacy going.”
The senior quartet has played an outsized role in San Diego State’s success this season. The Aztecs are 20-9 and spent three weeks in the Top 25, their first appearance in the rankings since 2009.
Calabuig is batting .339/.382/.568 and is widely considered the Aztecs’ top draft prospect. Hensley is hitting .306/.386/.396 as the starting shortstop. Chapman is a top defensive reserve. Erickson is second on the team in innings (35.2), ERA (2.27) and strikeouts (33).
It goes beyond just doing well for themselves or their team. It’s about carrying the badge of being Gwynn’s final players with pride.
“They have that winning attitude and I think they have Tony with them every time they step on the yard,” said coach Mark Martinez, an assistant under Gwynn for nine years before replacing him as head coach.
“It’s a special bond that they have and you can see it when they come to the yard. Those older guys who had been with him, they are in a position to where yes they want to win, but they also know there is a bigger picture to what they’re doing because they had to deal with such a devastating loss.”
Gwynn’s presence is everywhere at SDSU. The stadium is named after him. His jersey display overlooks the players lounge. Above the right field wall, centered between images of Stephen Strasburg and Travis Lee, is a 17-foot tall picture of Gwynn, with the words “Do things right”—a favorite saying of his as coach— emblazoned next to his face.
For younger players, Gwynn can be more myth than man. Someone they heard about and know about, but never spoke to or laughed with or learned from.
That’s what makes keeping him alive—through their play and actions—so motivating to the seniors.
“We try to send the same messages he’s always had,” Calabuig said. “We live and breathe the foundation and the messages, so (the underclassmen) have always been fed that.”
Keeping Gwynn’s legacy going through their play came to a head on Opening Day.
Each year SDSU’s seniors rotate wearing Gwynn’s No. 19 during the beginning of the season. This year it was Erickson who wore No. 19 in the opener. As the last remaining to Aztec to have played for him, the honor carried extra weight.
So did what came after. Erickson entered in relief that night, tossed 2.1 scoreless innings and earned the win in a 9-1 victory over UC Santa Barbara.
“All the extent behind it—wearing his jersey, my last Opening Night, and I came in with a bases-loaded jam and ended up punching the guy out and ended up walking away with the win—that means so much more to me,” Erickson said. “Just being the last guy, that was a very, very emotional day.”
Gwynn will always be with the San Diego State program. His brother Chris and son Tony Jr., both former Aztecs players, maintain a presence in the program. Martinez and assistant coach Joe Oliveira both coached under Gwynn, and carry his foundational messages to every new class that comes in.
But Gwynn’s final direct contribution on the field to SDSU was this group of current seniors. Together, through their leadership and play, they are making him proud.
“They’re grown up, they’re grounded and they’re great leaders,” Martinez said. “I’m very proud of where they are. They’re going to graduate from college and do great things.”