I’m normally not one to be sentimental about particular athletes. In fact, even as a “sports guy” (I guess I can call myself that), I avoid the human interest tales about this athlete or that one, those dramatic “life stories.” I just want to watch and enjoy the games, not delve into the struggle one athlete or another had to “get there.” It seems they all faced compelling journeys and overcame significant obstacles to succeed. After all, they’re people.
But Tony Gwynn died on Monday, June 16th. And this made me very sad.
It’s possible my emotions are a little raw these days for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here (or, actually, anywhere). These raw emotions may have made losing my favorite athlete of all time this particular week a little harder than might otherwise have been the case.
But it turns out Tony Gwynn meant a lot to me. Here are some of the reasons why.
The year was 1984. I was thirteen (stop doing the math) and, along with all my friends, a huge baseball fan. Also…math geeks. Which meant not only did we play actual baseball on a field, but we also played all sorts of nerdy statistical card games in dark rooms when we should have been outside in the sun. But I digress.
The thing is, it was time to pick a favorite team. See, growing up in Buffalo, NY, there is no local major league baseball team. We’re sort of equidistant from the Cleveland Indians, Toronto Blue Jays and Pittsburgh Pirates. In fact, most people just punt and root for the Yankees. It’s the same state, after all. And the Yankees are always good and therefore easy to root for.
Bah. Front runners.
Most of my friends weren’t this way at all. They all liked different teams: Milwaukee Brewers, Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox. For my part, I’ve never been much of a follower. I didn’t want to root for any of these teams because it felt like they were already “taken.”
Enter the San Diego Padres and Tony Gwynn.
See, in 1984 the Padres were very good. They had a new rising star in right fielder Gwynn. They reached the World Series (losing to the Tigers). San Diego has lots of sun and seemed like a pleasant place to visit. NO SNOW. Most importantly, no one else would have dreamed of picking the *Padres* to root for. Therefore, I had my team.
Alas, there followed (for the most part) many years of ineptitude. But no matter how bad the team might have been, they always had one bright shining spot – Tony Gwynn. He was the best hitter the league has seen in probably thirty years. There are lots of statistics I could dump on you, but I’ll refrain and instead point you to a link here if you’re into that kind of thing.
Sometime in the mid-’90’s I got to see my first live Padres game. I drove all the way from Buffalo to Philadelphia for a weekend series between the Padres and the Phillies. I went to all three games in the sweltering heat, watching from nosebleed seats. Tony Gwynn was there, had a couple of nice games, but he was small and very far away. I didn’t get his autograph. Still, I loved it.
Some years later I moved to Atlanta and started going to Braves games. Of course, if possible, I’d go when they were playing the Padres. Once, resolute to finally get close enough for an autograph, we went early and I brought a baseball. Gwynn came over to the stands to sign. A huge group of kids gathered around him. Not wanting to get in the middle and be the only adult, and being a severe introvert, I hung back. But my wife stepped in, knowing how badly I wanted the autograph, and called after him. He turned and smiled at me, said something nice (I can’t recall exactly what) and I tossed him the ball. He signed it quickly and tossed it back.
The rumors that I knocked over a five-year-old to catch that ball are just that. Rumors. You can’t prove anything.
What I can say is, it wasn’t very smooth. I’m nothing like this kid. Never have been.
Several years later the Padres built a beautiful new stadium in downtown San Diego – Petco Park. I had to go see it. It was like Mecca to me. And, because I had been smart enough to select a team who played in a gorgeous city weather-wise, both my sisters came on the vacation too. I’ll always remember that trip, especially the part where my sister made me sit between her and home plate so I could “catch any foul balls before they hit her.”
So I’ve been a Padres fan for a long time, but a Tony Gwynn fan just as long. And I have lots of great memories from the experience. The thing about Tony Gwynn is, he was a great player, but darn it, he was just as much a nice guy. And I rooted for him for so long I do feel a real sense of loss that he’s gone now, even though he retired from playing many years ago.
Supposedly nice guys always finish last. Maybe that’s true, but I’m not so sure. I think we men should value a well-earned nice guy label a little more.
Because nice guys don’t always finish last. Sometimes, they even go to the Hall of Fame.