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.