My God! His poor family.
This was the first thought I had when I heard that Tony Gwynn died. Dead at 54. Too young by any stretch of the imagination but certainly way too young for my idol and hero for thirty years. Tony Gwynn is gone and the world is worse for it.
Following the San Diego Padres was a part of my DNA. My grandfather, Tom Devlin, had season Padres tickets since they played in the Pacific Coast League. Behind third base, row 10, seats 1 and 2. Simply the best seats in Jack Murphy Stadium. We would always arrive early for batting practice and Cokes and hot dogs. Sitting down, Grandpa would explain how pitchers worked from the stretch or how they unleashed their battery of pitches. Because the visiting team would be sitting below us, we had a perfect view of the San Diego dugout and the crafty left fielder wearing #19.
My first favorite player was third baseman Luis Salazar. He wore #4. He could turn two as easy as turning off a light. Close to our seats, I would focus on Salazar but somehow my eyes would stare out into right field. There was somebody that looked nothing like me but somebody I wanted to be.
He was left-handed. He was always carrying around a paunch. He was preposterously commanding at the plate and he played with a smile. Anthony Keith Gwynn was as southern California as a long board or In-And-Out Burgers. A star basketball and baseball player at San Diego State, he was drafted by both the San Diego Clippers and the Padres. In 1982, he suited up with the Padres.
When I heard he died, I went to my baseball cards to put his life in perspective. For years, I’ve collect Gwynn cards. There is something very satisfying in looking at the backs of those worn cards that still smell like bubble gum and see from 1982 till 2001 there is only one team on the back. This sense of loyalty to a team is only dwarfed by his statistics. A career lifetime batting average of .338. He struck out only 434 times in his 20 year career. Tony went to the All-Star game 15 times, earned five Golden Gloves and seven Silver Slugger Awards. He finished his career with 3,141 hits. He even went to the World Series twice.
To this day, I still hate the Tigers and Yankees for denying Tony a World Series ring
Nobody hit a baseball better than Tony after World War II. Nobody. He is the only player to ever challenge hitting over .400 and he probably would have in 1994 if baseball didn’t go on strike. But these stats and numbers and figures mean nothing to me. Tony Gwynn was simply what a baseball player was supposed to be.
He played pure.
Watching Tony play set in my mind that baseball is both a team and individual sport. His ability to spray the field with hits and get on base was nothing in comparison to the example he set to a young baseball fan. He signed autographs, took time to meet with fans and even signed not one but two programs for a young Ben Raskin.
What I would give to have those programs today.
He had an awe-shucks approach to life that resonates with me today. I love being passionate about meeting people who have stories or achievements. Since you can’t take it with you, why not appreciate meeting people and embrace those moments? I’ve lived my life in the spirit of Tony Gwynn even though I only know him from the field or his brief time in the broadcasting booth. He was a living ambassador for not just baseball but mankind.
But that’s gone. Cancer took that not just from us but his friends and family. We’re poorer as a society with Tony Gwynn not with us today. Tony’s death signifies not just the end of a great man’s life but the end of my childhood. He tied together my youth following him and with Grandpa Tom’s death five years ago, he was the last connection to a youth that ended all too soon.
I was lucky enough to be at the first home game at Petco Park on April 8th, 2004. I sat next to my grandfather during the opening ceremonies and I got to see Tony walk out from right field. He wore his old jersey over a button down shirt as fireworks and the crowd erupted. He moved slowly, waving to the crowd and even pointed towards me and Grandpa Tom. I stood and cheered and wondered how much weight was on his shoulders.
He was Mr. Padre. The face of the franchise and a bone fide Hall of Famer. A massive bronze statue rests behind the outfield telling you as much. He might have reached historic marks for being able to hit a baseball but he was so much more to me. He was the man I wanted to be. Honest in both words and action, Tony Gwynn was everything baseball and life was supposed to be.
Better men could eulogize Tony Gwynn than me and in a way, I imagine Tony would say the same. He was one who never bragged or boasted. He simply did his job and trusted his teammates to do their best. I’ve always tried to do the same but it is hard not to brag or boast. I got to watch the greatest Padre play at the height of his power alongside my grandfather and for that I will always be eternally grateful.
I certainly hope Mr. Gwynn rests well.