I am a 39-year old baseball junkie. When I was eight, I became a Tony Gwynn fan. Everyone by now knows that I am a die hard Yankees fan. I have seen some great players that have come through the Bronx since I started watching baseball in 1983. None of them were ever able to over take Gwynn as my favorite.
Yesterday, social media, the internet, and sports stations were paying homage to this great human being with some beautiful commentary on his life. The entire time my phone was blowing up with people making sure I had heard the terrible news, as if I had lost a family member. Throughout the day yesterday, we heard and read a lot from reporters and friends recollecting his insanely amazing career. Today, I want to share with you the life of a legend from a Tony Gwynn super fan. I idolized this guy for so long that I have no problem admitting that Tim Kurkjian’s piece gave me the chills.
When you talk about Tony Gwynn, you have to mention the numbers. Actually, one specific number is the whole reason I am such a huge fan. My birthday falls on the 19th day in March, so when I was younger and had to start picking uniform numbers, I chose my birth date. I immediately searched out number 19s throughout sports to keep an eye on. I had Dave Righetti on the Yankees to watch, but then there was this kid out in Southern California that hit a baseball like no one else. That’s how I found Tony Gwynn. That’s how I would root for the lowly Padres to make the World Series for the next 20 years of my life.
Gwynn’s numbers alone have him as one of the greatest hitters of all time and, even possibly, the single best natural hitter to swing a bat. He batted over .300 for 19 consecutive seasons to finish with a career .338 batting average. Only one player since 1940 has a higher career batting average and that player is Ted Williams. More astounding were his career numbers against possibly the best pitcher of his era in Greg Maddux. Over the course of their duels, Gwynn went 39-94 with 9 RBI and 11 walks for a .415 batting average. Not only was he a great hitter, he loved to do it when it most mattered. His strikeout rate is legendary: 434 over a 20 year career. Adam Dunn struck out that many times last week.
Gwynn was larger than the numbers though. My one dream was that Tony Gwynn would one day don pinstripes and that his number 19 would be retired amongst the legends in Monument Park. Alas, that never happened. When Gwynn went to San Diego State, to play basketball nonetheless, he almost instantly made a vow to bring a championship to that city. Little do people know that if it weren’t for Bobby Meacham, one of the worst short stops in Yankees history, Gwynn would have never played baseball for SDSU. Meacham implored the Aztecs to give him a chance on the field. While Meacham never brought any rings to the Bronx, we can thank him for the greatest hitter of this generation.
In his years as a player for the Aztecs, the next 20 years as Mr. Padre, and then as head coach of the Aztecs, he never accomplished his goal. Yet he never wavered from the city he called home. That loyalty, that devotion, that ear to ear grin showing how happy he was that he played for one of the biggest losing franchises in MLB history was simply remarkable. He was proud to be a Padre. He could have gone anywhere for any amount of money, but he stayed a Friar true and true. Gwynn once said, “I like where I am. I like this team. The reason I never left is because I couldn’t have lived with myself if the Padres had gotten here, the World Series, and I hadn’t been around for it.”
So my dream changed. I hoped that one day the Yankees and the Padres would play each other in the World Series, and when that day came Tony Gwynn would put up numbers so grand, people would have to think twice about giving the WS MVP Award to someone on the losing team. That dream came true in 1998. That Yankees team is one of the greatest ever assembled and that Padres team didn’t stand a chance. They were steam rolled, but at the end of the day, Tony Gwynn had the best numbers in the World Series. He batted .500 with a home run that he smashed off the upper deck. Gwynn, who had a meager 135 career home runs, blasted a home run off the upper deck in Yankees Stadium. That wasn’t PEDs or a heavy bat. That was the heart of a player who was pumped up to play baseball. And I loved every minute of it.
I still have an article written by Bob Klapisch for the Bergen Record after Game 1 of that Series entitled, Yanks Know Gwynn is One of a Kind. Here are some experts that stuck with me over the years:
- “That might have been the loudest ovation I’ve ever seen for a player who never spent any time in New York.” David Cone on Gwynn’s Game 1 introduction.
- Gwynn rode the subway from his Midtown hotel all the way to the Bronx for Game 1.
- “Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, Gehrig, Ford — the baseball gods.” Gwynn said in awe upon entering Yankee Stadium, much like we Yankees fans did for the first time when we were children. He was 38.
Gwynn was larger than baseball but more so, he was larger than life. No, that isn’t a pun on how the one time speedster became a little bit more portly towards the end. It was impossible not to love Gwynn. In 1994, when the strike shortened season robbed him of batting .400, he befriended Ted Williams. You do understand no one ever befriended Ted Williams, right? Williams, no matter how great a ballplayer he was, is known as one of baseball’s all time biggest pricks. Yet, there is Tony Gwynn, smiling and helping him to the mound of the 1999 All Star Game five years later.
In all of the text messages I received yesterday, it seemed everyone my age described something they took from Gwynn’s game and tried to emulate. “We all were taught his approach to hitting growing up,” Jay said. Sperry recollected: “I remember playing little league and thinking that I needed to use a bigger bat. Then I found out he only used a 31 incher. After that day I never grabbed or bought anything bigger than that.” The guy simply touched so many lives.
And he touched mine. I never met Tony Gwynn, never even spoke to him. I spent my life several thousands of miles apart from him on the opposite coast. But I feel a great loss in my life. Maybe it’s my childhood coming to an end. The guy that I would go to Shea Stadium to see and for whom I would visit endless baseball card stores to make sure I snagged up every Gwynn card I could, has tragically left us at just 54 years of age. I feel a little emptier from it. In a few short months, my fiancé and I are moving into our new home, and I can assure you that the Padres number 19 will be the first to be retired on the wall of my man cave. Farewell old friend and rest in peace.