How do you describe the feeling when your childhood idol Tony Gwynn dies? You can’t. That is exactly what I experienced this week when I heard that Tony had passed away at the age of 54. He was the man I pretended to be when playing baseball with my friends. He was the man who was a leader on and off the ball field. He was the man who was so talented.Yet, he went out of his way to be humble. This was my idol – Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn.
In 1987 I was 10 years old and couldn’t have cared less about any sport until I heard about this guy named Tony Gwynn. Growing up in San Diego. I heard his name mentioned a lot in every newscast and on many sports pages. It was an experience similar to an infomercial which repeats the phone number over and over and over. It was enough to grab my attention to discover Tony.
Shortly thereafter I started watching Padre baseball on TV and I could really see what the hype was all about. This man was the real thing. Suddenly. I also wanted to play baseball and I did for six years after that. And then another 4-5 years of softball.
If I hadn’t heard about Tony Gwynn, who knows if I would be a baseball fan. Hell, who knows if I would be a sports fan, but I am. I’ve been a huge Gwynn fan these past 26 years, reading and learning everything I could about him.
Upon choosing Gwynn as my favorite player, I began collecting as many of his baseball cards as I could. I blew all of my allowance every weekend at the local flea market scouring for Tony’s baseball cards. Even when I didn’t have the money to get all the cards I found, my dad would lend me some to help feed my new “habit.”
My interest in Gwynn grew like wildfire as I got to see my idol play in person . . . right in front of me in the outfield at Jack Murphy (now Qualcomm) Stadium year after year.
I feel so privileged to be able to say that I got to see this Hall Of Famer in person many exciting times. In my entire life, I never saw a better player with my own two eyes then what I saw in Gwynn.
My fixation with Tony — as every Padre fan called him like we knew him our whole lives — got to a point where other baseball fans I know would think of me when they heard his name. In fact when I received the news a few days ago of Gwynn’s death I received two e-mails and a couple phone calls — even one face-to-face condolence for my loss. But what I lost wasn’t anything compared to what I gained by being a Tony Gwynn fan. I learned about hard work, dedication, and being loyal to one team no matter how far in the cellar, plus I learned about character.
Tony was famous. He knew he was famous, but he didn’t act famous. He was humble to a fault, and people loved him as much for his personality as they did for his play.
Here I sit some 26 years later in Nebraska with over 250 Tony Gwynn baseball cards, admiring them as I flipped through. I can’t help but wonder how much I spent on his cards over the years, but it doesn’t matter because he was my idol and it was worth every cent.
I now also have much Tony Gwynn memorabilia, including bobble heads, action figures, T-shirts, hat, plaques, a silver coin, and much more. My five-year-old daughter inherited one of my Gwynn action figures. When she plays with the “Tony,” I taught her to say: “This is Tony Gwynn, the greatest baseball player ever.” Even at her ripe age she knows of my love for her and my love for Tony Gwynn.
When I heard the news of his passing the other day I was giving my two little girls a bath and I opened my e-mail to read the headline: Gwynn dies at the age of 54. I said to myself that this isn’t real, but it was. When I told my daughter that Tony Gwynn died, she immediately said, “You mean the greatest player ever?” And I told her, “Yep that’s him.”
Tony, you will be missed, but my memories and those of your fans will live on forever through stories and pictures . . . and yes, even through baseball cards.