I’ve spent the majority of the last three days trying to come up with something regarding the passing of Tony Gwynn, the one athlete I could even come close to considering my idol. However, every time I got into a groove, the words got away from me and start to go off in directions I don’t want to go in.
The poor play of this current Padres team. The seeming ineptitude of upper management to identify solutions. Poor choices by that same management team on the public relations front.
I see all of those topics as an affront to the memory of one of the greatest baseball players of my generation. None of which are even remotely the point of writing about what Gwynn meant to me.
But I don’t have a personal story about meeting Tony that would be considered even remotely interesting.
When I had the rare chance to meet him at an autograph session, I was too overwhelmed to even get into small talk with him. I would see the line of people waiting — some impatiently — to meet Tony and didn’t want to rob them of even a short moment with him.
Because I was among them just a few minutes before. Sitting or standing a 100 people deep waiting my turn. Seeing someone walk up with a camera or a stack of baseball cards and thinking, Oh, great! This is going to take even longer!
Given all of the touching stories that have come out about regular schmoes having amazing experiences with Tony, I find myself wishing I had taken the time just once in the few times I did meet him to ask him something other than “How’s it going today, Tony?”
After wracking my brain for nearly three days, I finally decided to share some stories that other people have written. Stories that I hope will at least partially sum up what I’m feeling about his passing and what he meant to me as a person.
Because I’m still having trouble finding the right words.
This was published the day before Tony passed, on Father’s Day.
When Tony Jr. was a kid, he’d accompany his father to work at Jack Murphy Stadium every day once school got out. They’d talk baseball to and from the ballpark. OK, sometimes they’d talk hoops. Tony Sr. played baseball and basketball at San Diego State and Tony Jr. was a pretty fair basketball player himself.
“It took me till I was 15 to beat him in one on one,” Tony Jr. said.
Jim Salisbury, CSN Philly
Everything that follows are excerpts of stories from fans, bloggers, local media, and national media. All with more insight than I could ever hope to convey in my own words.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I was at the first game Tony managed for the San Diego State baseball team in 2002. The game was at Arizona State’s Packard Stadium in Tempe against my beloved Sun Devils. I don’t remember much about the game at all, other than one guy carrying around several bats and a Padres helmet in the hopes that Mr. Gwynn would sign them. Looking back now, I wish I had kept the ticket from that game, and if I had realized at the time what that game meant for the SDSU baseball program, I would have.
Mark Dunsmore, Mark’s World
Tony Gwynn was a clutch hitter.
It’s the Gwynn Paradox, the Gwynn Exception. When people sat down to write the most strident of anti-clutch sabermetric screeds, Tony Gwynn would pop up on the screen like Clippy.
“It looks like you’re writing about clutch hitting. Can I explain it to you?”
The angry stathead would close it out and keep writing. Gwynn would pop up again.
“It looks like you’re writing about clutch hitting being a myth. Would you like me to prove you wrong?”
Hey, not now, Tony Gwynn, I’m writing a sabermetric screed.
Grant Brisbee, SB Nation
As a kid, I had the opportunity to chat very quickly with him a few times while getting his autograph and he couldn’t have been more friendly…
Greg Weeks, Weeks Notice
Tony got mad at me once that I recall. His father passed away during the offseason, and the following spring, I wrote a long story about it. So many of the people that I spoke to about his dad referred to him as Charlie, in conversation, and this is how I referred to him in the article. It turned out that Charles Gwynn did not like the nickname, and because he didn’t, Tony didn’t. It was a mistake that hurt, because Charles Gwynn was just 57 when he passed away, and was gone far too soon.
Buster Olney, ESPN
For Gwynn, the thrill was in the pursuit of perfection in a job built around failure. He tried to leave nothing to chance. Years before laptops and iPads, Gwynn would lug video equipment around the league, meticulously combing through his at-bats, discarding the rare clunkers and studying the gems.
Tyler Kepner, The New York Times
This was a man who not only was an “artisan with the bat,” as it says so eloquently on his Hall of Fame plaque, but a man who was an artisan in humanity. He had time for everyone, from his Hall of Fame peers to the guy with the leaf blower cleaning the stadium after the lights went out.
Scott Miller, Bleacher Report
After Tony Gwynn retired, I remember thinking how batting averages for the team seemed really low and I think that’s when I really got to appreciating what it was that I had been seeing all of those years. Sure, there were plenty of years when other players would come close to the numbers that Gwynn put up, or even occasionally win a batting title in an off-year, but I don’t think I realized how special it was until having a guy perpetually make runs for .350 batting averages just suddenly stopped happening. So many players that looked like they were more athletic or bigger or faster or cockier, but none of them could do what Tony Gwynn had been doing since I was five, going on six.
Dex, Gaslamp Ball
Even though Gwynn occasionally began interviews with a touch of reticence or good-natured grumpiness, conversations with him inevitably headed in the same direction. ‘I have nothing to say about that,’ Gwynn would grouse before filling a notebook and wearing out a microcassette tape recorder with priceless insights over the next half hour.
Jerry Crasnick, ESPN
When a certain reporter arrived into San Diego to write a piece on Gwynn’s final season for USA TODAY Sports, only for the 9/11 terrorist attack to hit and postpone baseball games for a week, guess who was calling to make sure everything was OK, and bringing him to his home.
Bob Nightengale, USA Today
Gwynn was also a pioneer in using video to study pitchers. In September 1989, Peter Gammons noted in SI that the superstar and his wife had been videotaping his at-bats for seven seasons, to the point that he traveled with a videocassette recorder. “I’m the real Captain Video,” he told Gammons. “After a couple of years, I knew what I was doing, then I started seeing what pitchers were trying to do to me and how they tip pitches.”
Jay Jaffe, Sports Illustrated
So his baseball life hadn’t been perfect. Over the years, teammates were jealous of his popularity (see Jack Clark), and even upper management seemed threatened by him. Maybe he’d gotten too big in town for them. How he was never hired as the Padres’ hitting coach is beyond me. They could’ve talked him out of coaching at San Diego State. They could’ve done more than just hire him as a broadcaster. John Moores, the owner when Tony retired, promised him a lifetime contract in 2001. But over the years, the two drifted apart.
Tom Friend, ESPN
He spoke to the Poly baseball team in San Diego in 2010 and regularly donated money for jerseys and equipment to the baseball and basketball programs at his former high school. He always left tickets for friends and former youth coaches whenever the Padres played the Dodgers or Angels. His closest childhood friends received holiday and birthday cards each year and frequent phone calls and invitations to come visit him in San Diego.
Jeff Eisenberg, Yahoo! Sports/Big League Stew
One day, one of the bat boys showed up wearing an earring. Bright gold and massive. The Giants were in town. During batting practice, Will Clark walked by and sneered, “Nice earring,faggot.” The words were stunning, but we knew we had to react like it was no big thing. News must’ve gotten around, though, because before the next game, Tony walked back to the locker room area with Bip Roberts and performed an entire routine for us. They had evidently practiced it during batting practice. They stood lecturing us, using every “how to talk like an older white guy” cliché in the book. “Now listen, son,” Tony started, stopping periodically to catch his breath, as he was laughing too hard. “You’re bringing down the team here, with that earring.” “Very, very unprofessional,” Bip added, haughtily. They walked away, howling with laughter, the point made: Will Clark was a dick.
David Johnson, Deadspin
You can count on one hand the cornerstones of the Padres.
Randy Jones gave us hope when there was none and became an ambassador for the ballclub.
Ray Kroc saved the Padres for San Diego.
Jerry Coleman brought the Padres into the homes and hearts of San Diegans.
Tony Gwynn showed us passion and excellence on the field and compassion and humility off it.
And Trevor Hoffman provided the finishing touch.
And we’ve lost the two biggest pillars – two beloved members of the Hall of Fame — in less than six months.
Bill Center, Friarwire
I’ve watched replays of games 4 and 5 of that 84 NLCS many times. It never gets old watching [Steve] Garvey’s home run, but the line shot by Gwynn right before that moment is just classic hitting. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtbSq5G2d8w). I remember thinking it was a robbery for Sandberg to win the 84 NL MVP. I remember watching the 84 World Series. Gwynn was my guy and the Padres were my team for life.
Walter Taylor, Backdoor Sliders
As soon as he walked through the door I was completely overcome with emotion. I was immediately choked up as my eyes filled with tears. I had to turn my back to him as I tried to gather myself. He put his arm on my shoulder and said, “It’s OK, take your time. This is your time.”
Rick O’Connor, Dad to the Future
Mr. Padre was a singularly tough out and a strikingly tender personality, a ballplayer who evoked such strong affection that the friends and family of Doug Hazlett sprinkled the deceased teacher’s ashes in Cooperstown on the day of Gwynn’s 2007 Hall of Fame induction.
When Gwynn learned of that gesture, he asked where the ashes had been spread so that he might pay his respects. Even as he was being exalted, Tony Gwynn never lost his humility.
Tim Sullivan, Louisville Courier-Journal
Here’s a family story about Mr. Padre that should shed some light into the inception of the Koke family and Padres baseball fanaticism. My parents moved from Denver to San Diego in 1979, and my dad immediately became an obsessed Padres fan. My folks bought the Cox Cable Padres package every year. Baseball was a big part of our lives, and we followed the Padres with fanatic attention.
In May of 1986, my mother was expecting her third child. On the afternoon of May 23, my mother knew she was going into labor, but the Padres game was on, and it was understood we would watch the game. Yes, it was like going to church.
Mickey Koke, Through The Fence Baseball
This Gwynn of the early 80’s – a third-round pick in 1981 – hadn’t even envisioned 10 stolen bases in a season, much less 56 or 319 over a lifetime.
A terrible fielder coming into Walla Walla, there was something that separated him from the rest – he worked harder than anyone at plying his trade.
Denis Savage, Mad Friars