I spent 26 years of my life in California split between the state’s central valley of Fresno and the beautiful city of San Diego.
Growing up, I was a junior Padre. I don’t remember a lot about those years going to different tee ball events at Jack Murphy Stadium but it was enough to make me a San Diego Padres fan for life. I followed the team in the box scores of the morning sports page of the Fresno Bee, making sure it was the first section I grabbed to see if my favorite baseball team had won their game the night before.
At that point, there was no MLB Network and there was no baseball package you could order on your television. They would have to be in Los Angeles to face the Dodgers or in San Francisco to face the Giants for me to catch a game on TV or on the radio.
I remember watching guys like Ken Caminiti, Andy Ashby, Woody Williams, Phil Nevin, Kevin Brown, Greg Vaughn, and Steve Finley during that magical 1998 season when I got to see my favorite team win the National League Championship series and move on to the World Series against the New York Yankees.
But among those players was one guy that stood out above any of the others that I loved watching night in and night out – Tony Gwynn.
I’ve read the tributes over the last 24 hours and I’ve gone back to listen to some of the podcasts from a San Diego sports station. The stories about Gwynn, and the kind of person he was off the field, makes you want to be able to tell your own story about Gwynn and the chance encounter you had with him.
I never got to meet Tony. Today, I really wish I had one of those stories because it would be something I would always keep with me. The prize possession I do have in the office of my home is a framed picture of his final game with the San Diego Padres before he would call it a career.
Gwynn was what I loved about baseball. He was the reason I loved the game and one of the biggest reasons I remain a baseball fan to this day. It was never about the numbers, it was about his approach and his meticulous preparation he went through before each and every game.
It was also about something that my mom taught me that stuck with me and became something I used every time I watched a sport regardless of what it was.
“Act like you’ve been there before.”
In game one of the 1998 World Series, at Yankee Stadium, Gwynn faced off against New York Yankees’ left-hander David Wells. In the fifth inning, with the game tied 2-2, Gwynn deposited an inside fastball into the right field seats, off the facing of the upper deck, giving the Padres a 4-2 lead.
There was no bat flip and Gwynn didn’t stand there admiring his home run.
Act like you’ve been there before.
In August of 1999, less than a year removed from Gwynn’s second World Series appearance, he would lace an inside breaking ball into right-center field. It was his 3,000th career hit in the big leagues.
Gwynn did what he always did. From the moment the ball hit the bat, he dropped the bat to the ground and ran to first base like it was just another hit. This time, however, it wasn’t just another hit and Gwynn wasn’t just another player.
His teammates streamed out from the dugout to congratulate him, opposing fans stood and cheered knowing they were witnessing history, and even the first base umpire gave Gwynn a hug because even he knew this player commanded respect from the moment he stepped on the field.
For Gwynn, however, he acted like he had been there before. No huge show of emotion, no yelling or pumping his fists. Just hugs from his teammates, his mother, and his wife and kids who were in attendance. After a few minutes of celebrating, it was back to business as usual.
That’s exactly how Gwynn approached the game – business as usual.
He was humble, never acting bigger than he was, always giving time to fans and reporters alike and never wanted to stop learning something new every day he showed up to the ballpark.
No one had ever heard of players watching film of themselves before Gwynn started lugging around his own equipment everywhere he went. He studied his at bats, making sure that he always stayed sharp, knew what he was doing wrong, and never got into any bad habits.
Except for one.
We all want to remember Tony Gwynn for the player he was on the field and the man, husband, and father he was off the field.
But there’s a lesson to be learned from what has become a very sad story. It was an addiction that Gwynn couldn’t kick that eventually took his life.
He was diagnosed with cancer of the mouth and saliva glands back in 2010 due to all of the years of chewing smokeless tobacco. His wife tried to get him to quit and Gwynn himself tried everything from bubble gum to sunflower seeds to synthetic chew to be able to stop.
It didn’t work. After years of chemotherapy and radiation, Gwynn’s body could take no more.
His addiction should be a lesson to all young ballplayers who think having that bulge in your lower lip makes you look more like a big league ballplayer really leaves you with life threatening problems later in life.
I don’t remember Gwynn for that and it’s not the legacy he leaves behind. Tony Gwynn will now, and forever, be known not only as “Mr. Padre,” but also as “Mr. San Diego.”
He meant everything to the community and the city of San Diego. He was one of very few players who got to play his entire baseball career in one city, not only in the big leagues but also in college having been drafted out of San Diego State University.
His passing wasn’t just felt in San Diego; it was felt around Major League Baseball because Tony had an impact on everyone he came in contact with.
If you grew up a Padre fan there was one name that you got to know and love and it was the same guy you wanted your kids to emulate because it was that man who solidified what greatness really was.
It’s not the storybook ending those of us who grew up watching him would have wanted and it’s not the way this story should end. His legacy will forever live on and I was honored to be able to see just a few of his games in person.
When my wife and I begin a family, whenever that day comes, and our kids are at the age where they understand the game and want to watch someone they can learn from, someone who plays the game the way it was meant to be played, I’ll sit them down in front of the television or the computer and play old footage of Tony Gwynn.
I’ll teach them the way he went about the game, the way he took hitting seriously, how he never stopped learning and always strived to get better, and the way he impacted the game of baseball.
That, above anything else, should be the legacy of Tony Gwynn.