It still hasn’t sunk in yet that my sports hero is gone. Tony Gwynn passed away on Monday, June 16th and leaves behind him a legacy to be remembered.
Growing up in Amarillo, Texas, I was fortunate enough to go to watch the Amarillo Gold Sox, the AA affiliate of the San Diego Padres. That magical summer of ’81 when a smooth hitter named Tony Gwynn rolled through. His time was short at the AA level, before being put on the fast track the next season to AAA and then on to the big club in San Diego. I think anyone who watched him hit and play the game understood that he was a special player; the kind of player that doesn’t come around very often.
I was drawn to his silent presence on and off the field. He was a student of the game, yet he was also a master of the game. That duality made him a one of a kind. He stands out with a handful of baseball peers as icons of maybe the last generation of players, who respected the game, worked hard to hone the craft, and to avoid the temptations and stigma of free agency by staying with a single team for an entire career. Tony was just that. He spent more than two decades with the San Diego Padres, a team that has seen some ups and downs in its franchise history. A relatively small market team that flew under the radar of most baseball fans, due to lack of continuous success and quite possibly, mainly, because of the often-mocked brown, gold & orange uniforms. Tony fit in perfectly and became a son of San Diego.
He was Mr. Padre. His love of the game is what made me love and respect him even more. Every season I knew that I could check the stats anytime in the season and would find Tony Gwynn usually in the top 5 in batting average, and that by season’s end, he was in a battle for the batting title, and quite possibly a gold glove. That balance made him great, but his humility and hard work made him an icon. There was no “jersey popping” from Tony, just the business of baseball. He was the opposite of a selfish player. The only thing you could say that was “selfish” was the fact that he pushed himself to be better. First on the field and last off the field. When he wasn’t in the batting cage, he was in the video room watching tape of himself hitting and fine-tuning his already amazing talents. Anyone who played with Tony knew his dedication for the game, and he led by example for his teammates and fans alike.
His career was an All-Star resume that led him to a well-deserved Hall of Fame induction. After he hung up his cleats as a player, he went on to doing something that he was great at…teaching and coaching. He began coaching the San Diego State baseball team to pass along a slice of his vast talent down to a younger generation. That’s who Tony was; master, student, teacher, and role model. They say role models are hard to find these days; well Tony Gwynn was one of those guys. His only real vice became his enemy and ultimately led to his death. Smokeless tobacco. He “dipped” as a player, as many other players do, but for Tony, it led to issues that eventually became mouth cancer. He spoke out about the dangers of tobacco when he found out his ailment. He became a teacher again in trying to steer young players from using tobacco and suffering the consequences that it could bring. Even in the face of health problems stemming from tobacco, he was the true professional and the sage teacher using his knowledge and experience to teach others.
His stats speak for themselves. Period. That alone makes him an elite athlete. This story isn’t about his stats; it’s about a rare individual who defies the logic of the modern day athlete’s mentality. He possessed that gift of being a gentleman in all aspects of the game. There are those players that display sports chivalry as if they were one of the Knights of the Round Table. That chivalry is fading from sports lately, with all of the “look at me” and “I this and I that” attitudes, and that makes me sad as a fan, and as a man. Tony Gwynn would have been the Sir Lancelot of Arthurian baseball. He wielded his “weapon” with skill and precision and fought selflessly for the good of the “team”. Of course his armor was Padre brown and gold.
I had the privilege of meeting Tony on a few occasions and spending a few up close and personal times with the Padres in spring training while he was playing. I got to see first hand how his influence and presence was strong on that club. He had fun with the boys, but took the time to find some alone time to stretch and think and prepare for the upcoming game. The other players knew not to bother him in his pregame ritual. It was a sign of respect to the man who was the leader of that team.
I have so many fond memories of watching Tony Gwynn play and they all became a surreal highlight reel in my mind when I learned of his passing. I was numb for a few hours, sad for the loss of my sports hero. Those in past generations, I can imagine, felt the same way I did when Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams died. Their childhood hero was gone, as is mine now.
I wish the 1994 season wouldn’t have ended in a strike, because Tony was on a pace to really challenge the .400 average mark. At season’s shortened ended, he was at .394, and he had the capability of heating up in September and was hitting over .400 since the All-Star break, so it was more than possible for him to make history. It just wasn’t meant to be. He never complained, and went about his business the next season, doing what he did best…hitting.
Ted Williams once said that Tony Gwynn was one of the best hitters that he had ever seen. Think about that. Ted Williams, the splendid splinter. He could see that Tony had that rarest of rare gifts to hit that little white ball with red stitches with more skill than most humans will ever understand. Much like Ted, himself. All I know is that he was the best baseball player I’ve ever seen. There are arguments for others, I know. But for me it begins and ends with #19…playing Right Field…Tony Gwynn.
I tip my brown Padres cap to him.