June 19, 2014 6:38 AM EDT

I first got to know Tony Gwynn, who died on June 16 at 54, when we were National League teammates in All-Star Games in the 1980s. We got to spend more time with each other over the years. When San Diego was in town to play St. Louis, or vice versa, we’d have nice long conversations, and our friendship grew closer when we’d see each other at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. He was just a guy who loved being around people. His laugh was infectious.

Tony studied not only the mechanics of the opposing pitchers but also their patterns: when they were going to throw breaking balls, when they were going to throw fastballs. At the end of the day, that didn’t matter all that much, given how well Tony saw the ball. Guys who hit like Tony see the ball coming right out of the pitcher’s hands.

It’s sad to lose somebody who loved life. I’m honored and blessed that I got a chance to play against him and got a chance to get to know him. And I know one thing: up there in heaven, he’s going to crack that starting lineup.

–AS TOLD TO SEAN GREGORY

Smith was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002

This appears in the June 30, 2014 issue of TIME.

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