Our heroes die, and a part of us goes with them. When Jerry Coleman died in January, I couldn’t find it in myself to write about the great man. The words simply weren’t there, so I let his actions and the words of others speak for me while I grieved.
Coleman was 89 years old. Though his death left us all with an unfillable void, we could at least comfort ourselves knowing that he’d lived a longer and richer life than most. Any death is tragic, but people that age will die. We can make some sense of it in the way our minds try to make sense of things we don’t understand.
When Tony Gwynn died on Monday after a long battle with cancer, he was 54. This makes no sense.
I was in Seattle when I heard the news that morning. The rest of the day is a blur. I wrote a brief tribute to Tony, spent the afternoon on Bainbridge Island with Mrs. Ducksnorts, and watched the Padres play the Mariners that night at Safeco Field with VM David and family, but Tony never left my thoughts.
The game was the latest in a long line of disappointments for this year’s Padres. Their lackluster play provided a stark contrast to the memory of an ever-effusive Tony Gwynn and reminded us of some awful teams he played on over the years.
“At least we have Tony,” we could say during those dark times. When the Padres lost 97 games in 1987, Tony was with us. When they lost 101 games in the wake of Tom Werner’s 1993 Fire Sale, Tony was with us.
He was the star at the center of our universe, pulling us in and holding us steady against the underlying turbulence. He shone brightly, and we gladly revolved around him. If we ever felt lost or disillusioned, we could watch Tony’s smile or hear his laugh and remember that everything would be okay.
Part of it is that he seemed to want us as much as we wanted him. He didn’t have to stay in San Diego, but he did, for less money than he could have made elsewhere. And after Tony’s playing days ended, he stuck around to coach his alma mater.
His nickname was Mr. Padre, but that isn’t inclusive enough. He was Mr. San Diego.
And even that might not be inclusive enough. As David has mentioned, the Mariners were nothing but gracious to Padres fans as we mourned. Baseball is a family, and everyone is connected. Mariners reliever Joe Beimel gave up the final home run of Gwynn’s career. Tony’s brother, Chris, is the team’s director of minor-league operations.
Chris Young, Seattle’s starting pitcher on Monday, spent five seasons in San Diego. As he said after beating his former team, “He is the city of San Diego. You talk Padres baseball, Tony Gwynn is everything there.”
This may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. For a franchise that has struggled to find an identity since its inception and a city that often lies on the fringe of national media relevance, the constant has always been Tony Gwynn.
I’ve never felt prouder to be a Padres fan than when I attended Tony’s Hall of Fame induction. But more than that, I’ve never felt prouder to be a San Diegan.
He is in many ways a logical and necessary extension of Coleman. I didn’t get to meet Tony, but I’ve met enough folks who did to know that he was a great guy. What we saw on the field, or on TV after his playing career–the smile, the laugh–was real. If you’ve read any of the tributes to Tony in recent days, you know how far his reach extended. He left his mark. He touched everyone.
Our heroes die. I don’t use the term lightly. Most of us aren’t fit to wear it, but Tony was a hero. The example he set in life made me want to be a better person.
I feel his loss in ways I’ll never be able to explain. He was always there and now he’s not. And while I can resign myself to losing games, nothing will let me accept losing Tony.
Despite what Jimmy Dugan said in A League of Their Own, there is crying in baseball. I did it in Cooperstown in 2007 and again in Seattle on Monday. Hell, I did it while writing this paragraph.
The game will go on without Tony. We will go on without Tony, revolving around the memory of him. But none of us will ever be the same. He touched everyone.
As his friend Jerry Coleman used to say, “You can hang a star on that baby.” A star at the center of our universe, with Jerry, where the glow never fades and the laughs last forever as we keep circling toward that inevitable reunion with our heroes.
Rest in peace, Mr. Padre. Say hi to the Colonel for me.