I was going to write about the Padres draft signings last week. Then I heard the news about Tony Gwynn’s passing. It took me a week to even think about the Padres draft again. I knew Tony had been battling cancer, but I didn’t realize it had gotten that bad. The suddenness of the news really hit me.
Unfortunately, unlike many of my cohorts here at Padres Public (and all over the internet), I don’t have any touching stories involving Tony Gwynn. Geography and timing led to my having different heroes growing up. By the time I was 10 years old, Gwynn was wrapping up his age-38 season with a .321/.364/.501 line and a second trip to the World Series. I can remember watching his only postseason home run — that pulled near-upper deck shot off David Wells — on a small TV in my bedroom. I was happy for Gwynn, sure, but I was happier that his blast put the Yankees (the always hated Yankees) down 4-2 in Game One.
What I’ve learned over the past week is that Gwynn wasn’t just the best pure hitter since Ted Williams. He wasn’t just a guy who hit .338 lifetime and, in Williams-like fashion, hit .328 over his final four seasons. He wasn’t just a guy who led the league in batting average and hits a combined 15 times, struck out more than he walked in just one season (his 209 PA rookie season!), and stole 56 bases in his should-have-been-runaway-MVP 1987 campaign. And he wasn’t just a good guy.
All of the stories that have surfaced since Tony’s death – the ones about the batboys, the signing sessions and the pictures, the treatment of media members (even small-time ones), the unexpected hitting lessons– prove that Gwynn wasn’t just a great hitter, he was a far better person. There’s an old adage that says you should never meet your heroes. They probably won’t live up to your expectations and, heck, there’s a decent chance they might be real jerks. If there was ever an exception to that old adage, it was Tony Gwynn.
Gwynn was very much a master of his craft. He was an immensely talented athlete, as his two-sport standout career at San Diego State highlighted, but it’s the countless hours of video analysis and swing tweaking that made his baseball career so fascinating. That analytical mindset probably had something to do with Gwynn befriending the aforementioned Ted Williams, a like-minded thinking man’s hitter. What made Gwynn’s career so amazing was that he possessed that typical, almost all-encompassing drive that accompanies most top athletes, yet he remained so humble and happy-go-lucky.
In his famous essay on Ted Williams’ last Fenway Park hurrah, John Updike wrote that “gods do not answer letters,” seemingly excusing the often surly Williams from not tipping his hat to the Fenway faithful after his final home run. You get the feeling that Tony Gwynn answered every letter.
I wish I’d have met him. RIP, Tony.