Remembering Tony Gwynn

Finding a team

When I was growing up in Arizona in the late 80s and early 90s, we didn’t have a baseball team. Instead of following my home town team closely and carefully, I picked up what I could from the California teams, miles away. I went to bed to the sounds of Vin Scully, calling the ups and downs of the Dodgers and my favorite player, Brett Butler. I’d never seen him play, but I knew he hit leadoff and had speed and I enjoyed hearing call of his motion around the basebaths while I drifted off to sleep.

I auditioned the Giants as a favorite team for a while; we had a close aunt and uncle in the Bay Area, and they took us to games and got us hooked on the men in orange and black. Will Clark and Matt Williams were standouts in our household, and we felt an extra affinity for the big leaguers who’d gotten their start with the Phoenix Firebirds, the Giants’ AAA affiliate and the closest thing we had to a home team until the Diamondbacks arrived in 1997.

But then there were the Padres. As the crow flies, the Padres were the nearest team to us and though they were the least sexy of the California teams in the NL, they quickly found a special place in my heart. When I was just six years old, we took a family trip to San Diego and Jack Murphy Stadium, where I attended my first major league baseball game. On August 14, 1991, my dad and I sat in our seats deep along the third base line and absorbed the sounds of the crowd, the brightness of the grass, and the explosion of Fred McGriff’s first-inning grand slam, the second slam he had hit in the first inning in as many games, an event memorable enough to have stuck with me until today. Leave it to a six year old to notice the long ball and miss something else that was special about that slam: Tony Gwynn was standing on second base when the ball was hit.

Stories and stats

I don’t remember when my dad and I started paying attention to Gwynn, but I know that it wasn’t long before he was the centerpiece of our conversations around batting stats, hitting technique, character, and sportsmanship. In our local paper, the box scores were published each morning, and because San Diego games finished long after my bedtime, I connected with Gwynn’s performance through printed numbers every single day of the 162-game season. When I woke up, I’d grab a bowl of cereal and the sports page, flip to the box scores and look straight to the Padres batting order. The second name down was always T. Gwynn, rf. I’d move my eyes to the right: 2 for 4. 1 for 3. 2 for 3. 3 for 4. On a great morning, I’d find he’d gone 4 for 4 or 4 for 5. My dad would ask, “How’d Gwynn do?” and I’d always be ready to report. Of course he’d already checked the box score before I’d gotten up, as eager to see how our hitting hero had performed as I was. 

In 1994, I was crestfallen when the strike ended the baseball season not because I wanted to see a World Series that year, but because my favorite player was six thousandths of a percentage point from being the first man since Ted Williams in 1941 to hit .400. The season ended and nobody has ever come near as close as Gwynn.

On warm weekend days, I’d grab my glove and a ball and head out to the back yard to practice my pitching against painted cinderblocks on our backyard wall. The game was the Padres against who cares, and whenever Ian Fisher came up third in the order, you could bet that Tony Gwynn had already gotten a hit through the 5.5 hole to put himself on base in front of him. In my baseball fantasy world, Gwynn batted 1.000 because I couldn’t bear to have him make a trip to the plate without lacing a line drive through the infield and into the green grass beyond. Gwynn was always there, always hitting second, peppering the field with hits from foul line to foul line.

In 1998, Gwynn played in his first and only World Series, homering off David Wells in game 1, a blast that had my dad and I dancing around the room in celebration. I wore my Padres cap and Gwynn jersey. We cheered him through every game that series and I was crushed when he and the Padres came up short: how could anyone be happy that the hero of the ideal of baseball, the irreplaceable talent whose gifts–we knew–had come only through so much hard work, had lost to the money-spending juggernaut from New York? I have hated the Yankees ever since.

In 1999, on his mother’s birthday, Tony Gwynn had a 4 for 5 day in Montreal and collected his 3000th hit, a perfectly ugly bloop single over the second baseman’s head and into the outfield beyond. In the days before Extra Innings, we had to hope that the Padres were being featured on the national game of the week if we wanted to see Gwynn play. They rarely were. And so we heard about it after the fact, and I watched the highlight again and again, reliving the moment as though I had been watching it live. Within a few days, my dad had bought a photograph from the moment the ball made contact with the bat. It’s still framed in our den back home.

Our secret

The most special thing about Tony Gwynn, though, was what he meant to me and my dad. To me, it felt like we had discovered this great secret in the world of baseball: a player who hit for average and didn’t care about home runs; a guy who worked hard and who had curiosity about every little thing that mattered in the game; a guy with a laugh and a friendly voice and the kind of temperament and engaging spirit that made you hang on his every interview, every press clipping, every tidbit that showed that he stood out in a way that few athletes ever could. Tony Gwynn felt like our secret, something nobody else knew about–something we shared together, just the two of us. 

In his last year in the majors, we knew we had to catch him live. We went to see him and the Padres take on the Diamondbacks in late July of 2001. It was the year the Diamondbacks would go on to win the World Series in an incredible comeback against the very same Yankees that had defeated Gwynn and the Padres in 1998. By now I had come around to being a fan of the home team, leaving most of those days of California fandom behind me. But on this day, I brought out the Gwynn jersey and the Padres cap and we went to the park to see our favorite player in the flesh, just one more time. We usually sat up in the cheap seats, but for Gwynn’s last season, we bought seats that were low along the first baseline, lower than we ever sat for games. We wanted to see him as closely as possible.

When the lineups were announced, Gwynn wasn’t listed on the scorecard. He had mostly been pinch-hitting in games here at the end of his career and had already missed the first two games against the D-Backs in the series. We were probably out of luck, we decided, and so we sat back to watch the game with a sting of disappointment. I was sixteen years old at the time, and as the ten years had passed between my first Padres game and this one, I had turned into, well, a teenager. My dad and I loved each other but we got on each other’s nerves: he’d embarrass me, I’d get frustrated with him, and we’d go on and on irritating one another through the doldrums of the middle of the game, neither of us particularly happy at the fact that what we had come to see wasn’t happening. By the 7th inning stretch most of the seats had cleared out around us and I had become so irritated (irritating?) that I went and sat a couple of rows behind my dad so we wouldn’t have to talk to each other. We never left a game early, so I’d just wait it out until the ride home.

And then in the top of the 8th inning with men on first and second, a pinch-hitter came to the plate: Tony Gwynn. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to realize what was happening. On the first pitch, Gwynn ripped a line drive down the right field line directly in front of us, good enough for a two-run double. When the dust and scattered applause and cheers had settled, Gwynn stood along on second, bases cleared. The aging vet was immediately pulled out of the game for a pinch runner. As the Padres made their substitution, I climbed the two rows back down to my dad, plopped down in the seat next to him, and we spent the rest of the game and the whole drive home talking about our favorite player, our secret, wondering if anyone else had noticed just how great he was.

Tony Gwynn died today at 54 after a four-year battle with cancer caused by chewing tobacco. My dad and I will miss him.

True Detective

I’m not all that savvy a telivision critic. My first stop after watching each of the True Detective episodes was twitter or the AV Club, to see whether my own theories were shared (yes!) or if other people were following threads that were smarter and way over my head (damn!). I can’t say that I will add anything all that revelatory to

what’s already been written about the series – that I will shine any new light into the darkness. I can say that as I watched last night’s finale, I was quite literally on the edge of my seat. From the moment they followed that dusty road to Errol’s torture and arts and crafts farm on the bayou, I was ready for something incomprehensibly and engrossingly horrifying to ensue. Others have pointed out that this ending was a simple one, wrapped up neatly with the culprit taking the form of the predictable crazy hick who loves to torture people. But that didn’t change my sense of enjoyment in the moment, nor will it affect the stand-alone value of the moments in the series that were so different and so captivating.

true_detective_matthew_mcconaughey

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Maia’s Birth Day

Over the last eleven weeks, in the midst of one round of finals, a new set of classes, a hundreds-of-miles-move (with wife and dog and cat and baby all in one car together), and your daily dose of grad school homework, I’ve put off writing my daughter’s birth story. Some of the reason for this is procrastination, but a bigger reason is that I believed that the experience would defy description until some of the memory had faded and I could apply words to it justly. My father says that women often forget the gory details of birth as an evolutionary mechanism–if they remembered, he says, they’d never in a million years want to have another one. I’ve done my part to help prepare for child number two by forgetting a little bit of the birth story, but I think I’ve remembered enough to give an account that Kristine can be proud of and Maia will someday be excited to read. I hope that it’s accessible enough for each of you to enjoy reading it, too. Skip ahead where necessary; the headings I’ve added should help you find the parts that you’ll find most interesting. For the truncated version, head straight down to “Delivery,” but know as you go that a start-to-finish read isn’t reserved only for grandma(s).

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While I was Gone

I just glanced at the blog and realized that I haven’t posted a new entry in over thirteen months. That’s a long time to be away, but you can trust that I haven’t been wasting my time on frivolous pursuits, nor did I treat Infinite Jest as the pinnacle of writing and thereby resign myself to never write another word.

In January, I applied to a handful of graduate programs for education policy, and was admitted in March to Stanford University, among others. I began a nine-month Master’s program in September 2012.

Just before leaving for admitted student events at Harvard and Stanford, Kristine told me that she was pregnant: if everything went well, we’d be expecting in early December.

On July 27, we two were married, with our little Bean in utero. We celebrated with a rooftop wedding under a Portland sunset, a live guitarist, handmade napkins, and wonderfully supportive and energetic friends and family. And a few shots of whiskey (for me, not for her).

In December, our daughter Maia Bean Fisher was born. While 2012 was a big year, nothing could touch this experience for me and Kristine. I am now a father–something I seem to have been preparing for since I was a nine year-old kid who would rather stay home with my dad and hand out the candy than go out trick-or-treating on Halloween.

My next step is to write Maia’s birth story, which I will post here. It will be hard to pen a description of something that was, quite literally, indescribable. But, I make lofty goals and will aim at it nonetheless.

Infinite Jest

I read a solid 100 pages of Infinite Jest with no idea what I was reading. The novel requires the most assiduous of readers, if they are to put the big pieces together in those first hundred pages. I had to work hard to shrug the sense that I was woefully inadequate as I leapt into Infinite Jest. Instead of searching stubbornly for a “plot,” I allowed DFW to pull me along for the ride. A week’s worth of reading and I both loved and hated the book. I fought through the tougher chapters to get through great ones. At one point, I submitted to Wikipedia for help, and finally discovered the key plot points. Further reading uncovered subtle references to the samizdat, previously glossed-over major characters. Now that I knew where to look, I began to piece things together.

The facts about David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece are these:

  • it is 1,300 pages, but only if you’re stingy on the margins and printing in a particularly small font.
  • the 1,300 pages of text is, it seems to me, roughly 1,100 pages of primary story and 200 pages of footnotes ranging from the terse “Ibid.” to lengthy 28-page dialogs between brothers on the state of Quebecois separatism in the O.N.A.N.
  • though DFW throws out an initial explanation for what O.N.A.N. or E.T.A. and other abbreviations might stand for, he never again lingers on the full names. Snooze at your peril, he expects you to keep up.
  • the footnotes themselves have footnotes. I did not realize this for the first couple weeks of reading.
  • even after weeks of reading Infinite Jest, your bookmark will have moved no discernible distance towards the back cover of the book. You’ll creep along a millimeter at a time, each page just a drop in the bucket, a toothy grin at your attempts to cut through the novel with your typical reader’s pace.
  • I am only a third of the way through the book, having made enough progress to believe myself enough of an authority to write about it.

Now, I shouldn’t say that nothing was accomplished in those first couple of weeks of reading. Even the early pages were sustained by little chunks of wonderful eidetic descriptions of monotony, pointlessness, struggle, and frivolity. There are concentrated phrases of elegant humor buried within descriptions that go on for pages and pages. The novel has paragraphs as long as 18th-century political treatises and chapters as long as Goosebumps novels, though the two share no words in common. A favorite footnote of mine is a 28-page account of a phone conversation between brothers. While one brother presses hard on his intellectually gifted younger sibling for details on Quebecois separatism (I know), the other describes the manner in which he is launching toenail clippings into a wastebasket across the room. The conversation on the phone darts in and out of family dynamics and complex future-fiction politics, and all the while nail clippings fly at the wastebasket with a 70% rate of accuracy.

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Move Your Money

When I moved to Portland in 2003 to begin college, I signed up for an account with Bank of America. Both my parents had used BofA, and I knew that I’d have access to a network of ATM’s back in Phoenix and in Portland. It was a great national option, I liked the colors and the logo, so I signed up without much consideration.

In nine years, I haven’t really had an issue with Bank of America. I kept a nice buffer of funds in my checking account, I’ve opened a couple of new credit cards, and even found a way to make miles with my purchases through the use of the Alaska Airlines card. I didn’t have to take out any major loans, I haven’t bought a home, mortgages haven’t even ended my frame of mind. I dealt only with the tellers when I dealt with anyone at all–stopping by the bank was pleasant but neutral.

Last year, I went to see Inside Job at the Laurelhurst and came out fuming. I had so much anger and nowhere to place it. Wall Street, academic intellectual in economists, Obama administrators, “the system.” I could do little with a vote in the next election cycle, but I hadn’t even been convinced that “our guys” were better than “their guys,” and I couldn’t call myself optimistic for change or for the best realization of the democratic process.

A year later, the Occupy movement started blowing up all over the country. My friend Joe, in particular, tweeted and shared articles of greed: descriptions of excessive spending, accounts of Bank of America’s callous disregard for the homeowners who felt financial strain after the bank’s approval of incomprehensible loans. I read Krugman. And read Krugman. And read more Krugman. Credit unions became a major topic of conversation around me. Friends and I talked about ways to make a small difference. I decided to Move My Money.

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A Passion for Service

There are the standard meals at the burger joint, the plate and a beer at the local pub, the happy hour at Applebee’s. Good service and mediocre service are often indistinguishable except by a single-digit percentage points on the tip at the end of the night. Egregious oversights earn only a mild and reasonable demotion, while above-and-beyond service–defined by an extra cherry on top and the quick replacement of a fork dropped on the floor–means a couple of extra bucks.

Then there is the five percent of dining experiences where the service is exceptional. These servers shift the meal into another gear because that is what they do. They are professionals. They are passionate about food and wine; they are interested in your conversation but keep a respectful distance from the details; they are attentive without being overbearing. Little Bird in Portland has a young woman who made the “A” grade with an extra plus when Kristine and I went there last month. And a recent trip to Aqua Santa in Santa Fe, New Mexico yielded a notable experience worth writing about.

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