I Miss Tony Gwynn
You’re wrong about Tony Gwynn. However good you think he was, you are mistaken. However amazed you are about his career, you are misinformed.
That’s because Tony Gwynn wasn’t that good. He was better. Take every bit of praise coming his way and increase it because none of it is hyperbole. Simply, it is impossible to overstate Gwynn’s legacy.
No one truly appreciates just how remarkable Tony Gwynn was during his playing days. I feel a degree of guilt for not realizing it myself. I grew up on Tony Gwynn, and I still didn’t see it for years. The stats speak for themselves and don’t need repeating. Batting titles, career BA, Gold Gloves… yes, all of that. But the one stat that really jumps out at me: in 1998, Tony missed by 2. What did he miss? He had 2 more strikeouts than home runs (16-18). Let that sink in for a moment. He whiffed 18 times in 505 plate appearances, but homered in 16 of them. Yes, he is the best pure hitter of this generation and perhaps the best one since Ted Williams.
So, his career was amazing, of course. What is making people cry today is what Tony Gwynn, the man, meant to them. I can say that as a child of San Diego, Tony was my guy. All sports fans have the one athlete they latch on to for their lives. In you cheer for the Yankees, it’s probably Mickey Mantle. Cubs fans have Ernie Banks. Cardinals fans have Stan the Man. Tony Gwynn was mine, as he was for hundreds of thousands of people in my home town.
Personally, when I think about Tony, I think about hard work. It is fair to say that Tony squeezed every bit of ability out of his talent, which was immense to begin with, obviously. Tony used video to make his already beautiful swing better. He knew he didn’t have the best arm, so he worked on throwing obsessively. When Ted Williams told him to start turning on the inside fastball, he worked on doing just that and proceeded to record the best power numbers of his career.
I want to emulate Tony. I want to swing a bat like him. Laugh like him. Work like him. When asked what number I wanted for my adult baseball team there was no other answer other than #19. I tried to make it to every significant event in his career. I saw his last base hit (a double to left against the Rockies on the day before his last game). I saw his last game, his last at bat. I was there when they unveiled his statue at Petco Park. Why? It was important to me to be there.
I met him once. I was working on the weekend morning news at NBC 7/39 and Tony Gwynn had a fundraiser coming up for his foundation. The way things work in TV requires producers (like me) to talk to managers and PR people and not the actual person you want to interview. So, I’d been on the phone with someone who worked for his foundation. On the day of the interview, Tony showed up with the same woman I’d been talking with to schedule the interview. I greeted them by shaking her hand and introducing myself, “Hi, I’m Richard, the producer; we’ve spoken on the phone.” She replied, “Yes, nice to meet you”… I then turn to Tony Gwynn and say “I’m sorry, sir, who are you?” Tony, in his own humble way replied with “nobody, I’m nobody” while shaking his head and smiling. I then got to shake his hand and thank him for appearing on my newscast. Pretty much the awesomest few seconds of my life.
It’s strange to think that I miss someone I didn’t know, but that is how I feel right now. I miss Tony Gwynn. He will always represent my youth. The crazy thing is the fact that millions of other people feel the way I do, which is hard to believe. Not many people can affect so many lives. Tony was that rare individual.
When I close my eyes I can see Tony ripping a line drive for a base hit. I will for the rest of my life.