Mr. Padre: I Want To Be Like Tony
I have a confession to make. Much to my detriment, I’m not a native San Diegan.
A lot of my friends already know that, but those who aren’t close to me seem to be convinced that I am. It’s an easy mistake to make: I love the city, I write about the city’s baseball team, I brand myself with clothing and hats and other articles emblazoned with an “SD” on it… Frankly, San Diego is, for all intents and purposes, my hometown. But it wasn’t always that way.
My family moved to San Diego back in the summer of 1997. We were from upstate New York: a small town called “Peru” to be more specific, which was about 30 minutes south of the U.S.-Canadian border, and San Diego was a long ways from “home.” A lot of things were different from New York, mostly the climate and population. There were a lot more people around town than there were in Peru (which had a population of 1,591 in the 2010 census) and I was informed that there wouldn’t be any snow in the wintertime. Additionally, my family moved next to a large freeway (I-15) and lived about 20 minutes from downtown, but somehow still lived in the city of San Diego. The enormity of San Diego was difficult for my six-year old brain to conceive.
People were different, cars were newer, the sky was beautiful but the hillside we lived on was dead. Apparently San Diegans have periodic droughts and wildfires while my family was used to blizzards and snowstorms. There were no trees to explore (I lived near a small forest) and no ponds or creeks. San Diego was just a very different place to live and it was difficult to find common ground with my new locale… or at least it was until I found the Padres.
In my young life, I had grown up as an Expos fan. My first game that I can recall was at Olympic stadium sometime in 1994 when I was three years old. Olympic Stadium was an indoor stadium, and I can still recall the dimness and unnatural colors of the “grass” and dirt contrasted with the big advertising signs in the outfield. There was also the big “Montréal” logo behind home plate that seemed to dwarf batters as they stepped into the box. Expos games were always a lot of fun for me since we got to drive to a big city and catch a game for cheap (the stadium, as I’m sure you are aware, did not often attract fans). The expos fandom that my family had, paired with the baseball and softball playing tendencies of my older siblings rubbed off on me in a big way. As such, baseball became a big part of my young life and I wanted to have everything I could possibly have to do with it… so when I moved over 3,000 miles away from the small town I had known to be my whole universe, baseball was the first thing I latched onto for comfort as a stranger in a strange land. Particularly, the San Diego Padres.
I will admit, I tried hanging on to my Expos fandom as long as I could when I was a kid before finally letting the Padres into my life. My father actually yelled at me during one of our first games at Jack Murphy Stadium, right before they renamed it Qualcomm back in 1997. I was six years old and I was booing Greg Vaughn when he was announced. Why I was booing at Greg Vaughn specifically I’ll never know, but my father quickly grabbed me and told me “Stop it. We’re in a different town now. You can’t boo the hometown team, or else you’re going to get us shot.” (My father was not familiar with the laid-back and relaxed attitude of San Diegans yet… people in big cities on the east coast are a little more… hostile.) So I calmed down and sat in for the game and decided to give the team a chance.
The game was an entertaining one, as I recall, and ultimately the Padres won. That certainly made a good first impression… winning a game, I mean (The Expos never really did the… “winning”… thing). Apparently in the previous season the Padres were NL West Division champions (1996), but being an “out-of-towner” I was unaware of that. Nonetheless, there seemed to be a lot of excitement surrounding this team and fans were all about their Padres squad.
1997, as it turned out, would not be a wonderful season for the Padres (4th place in the division sporting a 76-86 record), with the exception of their All-Star outfielder: Tony Gwynn. In 1997, Tony Gwynn would finish out the season with a .372 batting average (highest in the majors that year), a Silver Slugger award, and his 13th All Star Game selection. On top of all of that, fans were all about Tony Gwynn – people brought signs with his number on it, there were shirts with his face on them, and there were even loud chants of “TON-Y, TON-Y, TON-Y” in the stadium whenever he would come up in a big situation. I was just a young kid who felt out of place in a big new city, so if I wanted to figure out this San Diego thing I had better take a page out of Mr. Gwynn’s book.
I had spent my first summer in San Diego watching Padres baseball on Channel 4 and going to the games with my family, so I felt as though I was developing nicely into an actual fan of the team. I had memorized the roster and the pitching rotation, and figured out a few significant things: Randy Jones was the Padres 1976 NL Cy Young Award Winner and also a fan-favorite (his #35 was retired by the team in 1997); Steve Garvey, despite also having his #6 retired by the Padres, was not a fan-favorite; Bud Beach was a cool place to go in Left Field if you didn’t mind not really knowing what was going on in the game; and finally, Tony Gwynn was the team hero, the team favorite, and all around good guy with the nickname “Mr. Padre.” He always seemed like a happy guy on TV – I honestly can’t ever think of a time when I saw Tony frowning on a broadcast or on the field. His teammates loved him, the broadcasters loved him, and the fans loved him. It seemed to me that there wasn’t anything at all that could make anyone dislike the guy and it was because of this that I picked #19 when I first started playing baseball.
I wore #19 hoping that some of that 13x All Star, 8x Batting Champion, 7x Silver Slugger and 5x Gold Glover magic would rub off on me. It was apparently the right choice in more ways than one since my first youth-league coach in 1997 smiled approvingly when I said I wanted to wear #19 to be “just like Tony.” Even when the baseball and softball seasons had ended, I would play youth basketball as well and what number did I wear? 19 of course, because apparently Tony Gwynn was also a great basketball player in college. I found a lot of comfort in trying to emulate Tony and all of the awkwardness of the new city seemed to flush away when I showed how hard I was trying to be like one of the most beloved men in all of San Diego.
Fast forward to the 1998 season when Tony and the Padres had friar fever spread throughout the county. This ’98 squad was one of the best in the almost 30 years of the team’s history and a lot of people had a good feeling going into the back half of the season. I can still remember all the chants of “TON-Y, TON-Y, TON-Y” and the loud thundering noise of Qualcomm coming over the radio as Tony would do another amazing feat and keep on leading the team to victory after victory. I had never gotten to experience the thrill of postseason baseball before and I was very fortunate to have what would turn out to be the best team of the National League at the time as my introduction to October baseball. Of course everything that allowed San Diego to get into the postseason was a team effort, but certainly nothing compares to the chills I felt when I got to watch this happen on live TV:
Ultimately, the Padres were swept out of the World Series by the Yankees (read: the evil empire), but that didn’t stop the newfound love I had for this team and their proverbial captain in Tony Gwynn. Tony acted as a rally figure for the entire city and it was something that was attractive and captivating that helped me become a “natural” San Diegan. One of the saddest days I can remember as a kid came when Tony Gwynn visited my elementary school. I was in fourth grade and I was sick at home the day he visited, so all of my friends got to meet him and hear him speak about the importance of learning while I stayed home and wallowed under a pile of dirty Kleenex and Vicks vapo-rub. Kids got baseballs signed and I got my sinuses clogged – lucky me.
Even after his playing career Tony was a polarizing figure. SDSU named a baseball stadium after him and eventually Tony was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown – on his first time on the ballot, too! I tried so hard to emulate my playing style after him and instead of being a power hitter (I became less scrappy as time went on) I went for pure contact. Collective hitting and a strong team effort prevails over swinging for the fences every time, and that was a fundamental lesson from Tony that stuck with me. Not only that, but Tony also taught me that doing hard work and simply being a great person would get you more friends than trying to impress everyone. It seemed to me that if Tony Gwynn – a native from Los Angeles, CA – can work hard and become comfortable and loved in a city of over one million people, what’s to stop anybody else; specially someone like me from a small town in New York?
Tony was a lot of things to me when I was growing up, and today he still means a lot to me. It hurts to hear that he’s not doing well healthwise, and I can only hope and pray that he comes out okay (edit: it hurts so much more to know that he’s gone, and it hurts so much more editing this to write that he’s gone… Tony was an Icon, a force. He was a hero, and they don’t make men like Tony anymore.) Tony Gwynn was certainly more than my favorite baseball player – he became my hero and I think he’s a hero to millions of others in San Diego and across the country as well. If I ever do anything positive in my life, part of that will be because of the impact that Mr. Padre had on me at a young age. So with this long winded story, all I have left to say is… Cheers, Tony. And thank you, Mr. Padre.
“If you work hard, good things will happen.” – Charles Gwynn Sr. (Tony’s Dad).
R.I.P. TONY GWYNN
May 9, 1960 – June 16, 2014