Originally published on Thursday, August 12, 1999 in the Toledo Blade. Re-published with the permission of the author.
by Jeff Cohan
In any given season, I go to dozens of baseball games.
But this season, I told friends I would be happy to go to the ballpark just once. As a transplanted San Diegan, I just wanted to be there in person when Tony Gwynn got his 3,000th major league hit.
No way I was going to miss it. I vowed years ago that I would travel to the ends of the earth — or even to Montreal, if absolutely necessary — to see my all-time favorite player reach that milestone.
So I bought a plane ticket on short notice and flew to St. Louis last Wednesday. With two games remaining in a series with the Cardinals, Tony was sitting on 2,995. Five hits in two games — very doable for the greatest pure hitter of our generation.
But the pressure was on. Not on Tony. On me.
After St. Louis, the Padres were going to Montreal, 900 miles away as the plane flies. And I couldn’t afford the $1,300 plane ticket.
Wednesday night, Tony raised my hopes. He stroked three hits, including a grand slam, to get to 2,998. And Mark McGwire slugged his 499th home run in the same game, putting himself just a hanging curveball away from 500.
Milestone mania gripped the Gateway City on Thursday. Scalpers were selling tickets for $200 apiece. I got one for a little less than that.
Early Thursday afternoon, five hours before game time, I walked into the lobby of the downtown Marriott, proudly wearing my Tony Gwynn jersey. And who do I see, walking towards me?
“Tony,” I said to him, “you better do it tonight. It’s a long drive to Montreal.”
He would be on the Padres’ charter flight. I would be driving — and driving and driving — if he didn’t get two hits that night.
I laughed, but not quite as heartily as Tony.
Busch Stadium was the center of the baseball universe that night. McGwire needed one home run, Tony needed two hits.
So, what happened?
McGwire got two. Tony got one.
I had 20 hours to get to Montreal in time for Tony’s next at-bat.
Friday morning I boarded the first flight to Detroit. Tigers general manager Randy Smith was sitting in first class. He had gone to St. Louis in hopes of seeing Tony’s 3,000th hit, too. I made him a trade offer: the Padres’ Ed Giovanola for Dean Palmer. He declined. It was worth a try.
After landing in Detroit, I rented a car and hit the road. By 1 p.m. I was halfway to Toronto, and 400 miles from Montreal.
I set the cruise control on 80 mph and took in the Canadian landscape. I didn’t have any cassettes or any company. Most of the FM stations were playing country. Why was I subjecting myself to this miserable, marathon drive to Montreal? How could Tony Gwynn inspire such devotion, such masochism?
Never mind that I had been following his exploits since my high school years, when I knew him only as a star point guard on the San Diego State basketball team.
Forget that his legendary work ethic has produced eight National League batting titles and five Gold Gloves.
Disregard that Tony has played his whole career for my hometown team, when he could have bolted for a bigger market and a higher salary.
The real reason I was racing across the Canadian countryside might make you a Tony Gwynn fan, too.
In the summer of 1991 I was working for a newspaper in a San Francisco Bay Area suburb. The editor assigned me to write a story about a freckle-faced girl named Meghan Campbell, an uncommonly brave 10-year-old born with a defective heart valve. She would soon undergo open-heart surgery for a third time.
Meghan and I had a couple things in common. We were both from San Diego, and we were both Tony Gwynn fans.
Just days before her surgery the Padres had come to San Francisco for a series against the Giants. With a press pass I entered the visitors’ clubhouse before the first game. I planned to ask Tony to send an autographed ball to Meghan’s hospital room, but not without some trepidation.
By then, I had already been a Gwynn fan for 10 years, but had never met him. What if he turned out to be a jerk? I braced myself for disillusionment.
I found Tony sitting in front of this locker, gave him a copy of the story I wrote about Meghan, and asked him to send her a ball. No problem, he assured me.
A few days after the operation, Meghan’s mother called me. Tony Gwynn didn’t send a ball to Meghan. He sent an autographed bat, one of his lightweight Louisville Sluggers.
Doctors offered Meghan hundreds of dollars for it. She refused to sell. She cherished that bat.
Without thinking, I told Meghan that I would try to introduce her to Tony when the Padres returned to San Francisco. She was excited. When my senses returned, I felt stupid. I got her hopes up but wasn’t sure if I could deliver.
When the Padres came to San Francisco for a late-season series, I brought Meghan to Candlestick Park, planted her in a seat, picked up my pass and ventured again to the visitors’ clubhouse, 90 minutes before game time. Tony was wearing bicycle shorts and a baseball undershirt, talking with outfielder Darrin Jackson, now on the White Sox.
“Tony, remember that little girl with the heart problem?”
“The surgery went well. And she loves the bat. Meghan wants to thank you in person. She is here in the ballpark right now.”
“Well, you can’t bring her in here,” Tony said, motioning toward some half-dressed teammates. “But I’ll tell you what. Go get here and bring her down to the tunnel outside the clubhouse. I’ll meet you there in a few minutes.”
I sprinted to the stands, told her the news, and led her to the tunnel, right past a bewildered security guard.
We were skipping towards the clubhouse when Tony appeared. He introduced himself and held out his hand. Meghan was trembling. She was so nervous about meeting her hero, she couldn’t speak. I could relate.
For a solid five minutes Tony carried the entire conversation, while a wide-eyed Meghan could only stare. I can’t remember much that he said, but I do recall marvelling that he was doing his best to give this girl one of the fondest memories she will ever have.
That’s the real reason I drove to Montreal last Friday. I doubt that I will ever admire another athlete half as much. I want a guy like that to succeed. And I wanted to see his 3,000th hit, the most important milestone in his Hall of Fame career.
When I reached Toronto, traffic slowed to a stop-and-go. I grimly realized I wasn’t going to make it to Montreal for the game’s 7 p.m. start time.
At 7 I was still 100 miles from the ballpark. I found the Expos’ English-language broadcast on the radio. For the first time in my life, I was rooting against Tony Gwynn.
“Just wait a few innings for No. 3,000,” I said, as if Tony could hear me through the radio. “I’ll get there.”
When he came to bat in the first inning, the pitcher, Dan Smith, threw two quick strikes. No cause for optimism there. Gwynn could spot every pitcher two strikes and still hit .300.
With the count 1-and-2, Smith spun a wicked curveball — low, inside, and out of the strike zone. Gwynn rifled it to right-center. Base hit No. 3,000.
I almost cried, out of frustration as much as joy.
I was still 70 miles away when Gwynn banged out hit No. 3,001 in his second at-bat. I finally made it to Montreal at 9 p.m. When I arrived at Olympic Stadium in the top of the sixth, Tony was approaching the batter’s box. Just as I settled into the seat, he stroked a single to right, a consolation prize for my long drive.
Tony singled again in the eighth, his fourth hit of the game. When he left the field for a pinch-runner, the crowd of 13,000 rose to its feet and gave him a long standing ovation.
As I joined in the applause, I broke out in goose bumps. Even in Montreal, indisputably the worst baseball town in the major leagues, the fans appreciated Tony.
And they didn’t even know what he did for Meghan Campbell.