The Tony Gwynn Experience

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[editor’s note: This is an entry from a friend of mine, Dallas McLaughlin. In addition to writing, he does stand-up comedy, and other neat things. Like many of you, he’s got a powerful Tony Gwynn story to tell. It’s not the first time you’ve heard from him here… or the second. – bp]

When I was 11 years old I went with one of my best friends to watch him struggle in a little league game for a team I can’t remember in a league I can’t remember. I was sitting by myself, bored out of my mind, and eating a Snickers waiting for the game to start. Throughout the small crowd of parents, coaches, and unsupportive siblings a low murmur began to travel. As it reached across the bleachers, I could finally make out what was being said: Tony Gwynn is sitting behind the outfield fence. Half of the crowd had already made it out to Tony, with hands outstretched begging the legend to sign a ball, hat, t-shirt, or whatever they had accessible. It was explained that Tony’s son was playing for one of the teams and he had come out to watch the game. In my young and uninformed mind, I thought he was obviously there scouting for the Padres. I rushed to my friend and told him he had to do well, cause this could be his shot at the big leagues! I then raced over to Tony, waded through the onlookers, and approached the man I had spent the last three years idolizing. When you’re as young as I was the fireman is just as important to you as Bill Cosby, so shaking hands with Tony Gwynn was basically like meeting the President. I pleaded with the kid next to me to borrow his sharpie, and then handed it to Tony along with the only thing I had for him to sign – my Snickers wrapper. He took it and gave out a quick smile.

“I can’t sign this.” He said.

I was terrified.  I’d made the President angry. I would now be shot.

“Give me your hand.” He continued.

I followed his instructions. He then reached out his hand, and shook mine.

“Come back after the game. You’ll be the first person I sign an autograph for.” He smiled again.

I ran off, a little embarrassed, but overwhelmed with joy. I just met, who I had only assumed, was the greatest Baseball player in the history of the world. Only later would I come to learn I wasn’t far off.

Tony told the rest of the crowd to come back after the game, but that he wanted to watch his son play. He wasn’t mean about it in the slightest, and not one person took it as a brush off. They all respected the legend’s wishes, and like he commanded, they came back after the game. He must have stood there for a good 20 minutes taking pictures, signing autographs, and meeting fans. I myself never went back. Shaking his hand was enough for me. Millions can say they have his autograph, even go buy it on eBay, but I can say I shook his hand, and that meant everything. This encounter would set a precedent for me, and from that moment on whenever I did meet a hero, I would always forgo any other concession and make it a point that I shook their hand.  I’m sure this was all too creepy on a few accounts.

When the news of Tony’s death broke last week this is the interaction and moment my mind immediately went to. How could it not? It was like that for all of us who had the chance to meet Tony Gwynn. And, of course that’s why most of the stories you heard on the radio, on the TV, or just talking to friends, were all about “The time I met Tony…” because most of us San Diegans have. This wasn’t because you tried hard to meet him; it was because Tony liked it that way. He made his home in this town and he was a part of this town, just like you or I would be. If he were out and about he would always take pictures or sign keepsakes, and if it wasn’t a good time, he’d tell you, and you respected it – because, you knew you’d get another chance; meeting a man like that would always trump anything you saw him do on the field.

Growing up in San Diego during the years Tony played, the Chargers were a joke, and we didn’t have a basketball team or a pro hockey team. The Padres were pretty much the only game in town, and Tony Gwynn was our Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and Joe Montana all rolled in to one. He kept a franchise breathing, and relevant. He kept a city hoping, and cheering. He took less money every time to stay in San Diego and be a part of this city. He worked tirelessly to improve himself, and to always be better, so the least we could do was go support him.

Tony Gwynn was an old school player with an old school attitude towards a game that we all wish was played the way we remembered it. He treated everybody with respect, the game, and the city. He never made over $7 million in a single season, and never complained about that – not once. He played with humility, understanding, and joy. So many stories, and fond memories have been tossed around and recounted over the past few days, and they’re all wonderful. However, to really understand just how respected and admired Tony was by all who met him, all you have to know is that you didn’t know he was so sick. In this day and age of Twitter, and Facebook, and 800,000 sports blogs and websites, and radio, you never really knew this was something that could happen soon. Of course we all knew he had cancer, but exactly how bad Tony’s health had become these past few months was not public knowledge. People say it’s because Tony was a private person when it came to these matters, but when have a celebrities wishes ever stopped some idiot trying to be the guy who ‘broke the story’. Complete respect for his privacy from all facets of the sports media – in this day and age, that should tell you all you need to know about who he was, and how he made others feel.

I’ll end with this…

I remember back in 2001 on July 19th, my buddy Nick and I decided to do the ol’ “right field shuffle” at The Murph. You know, pay for the cheapest seats possible, then walk to the right field section in front of the jumbotron, and find an open seat – and there were always open seats.  We got two in the fifth row, and plopped down with some hot dogs to watch our team struggle through another contest. 2001 was a particularly bad year for the Friars. We were starting guys like Ray Lankford, Cesar Crespo, and Bubba Trammell. The only thing most fans had to look forward to that year was watching Gwynn hit. (This was not an uncommon theme for Padre fans over the years.) The 5th inning rolled around, and Gwynn smacked a long single into the outfield; for some reason Gwynn tried to leg it into a double, and pulled up limp at second base. He grabbed some part of his leg, walked off the field, and Nick turned to me and said, “It’s over. That’s the last time we’ll see him start a game.” Of course Nick wasn’t totally serious, but it didn’t look good. Tony’s weight had been getting a little out of hand for a position player who didn’t play first base, and he was slower than he’d ever been. Turned out Nick was right. Tony started another series a few weeks later in Pittsburgh, but never again at home.

I will never in all my years forget that moment. Not only because Nick ended up being a Baseball Swami, but also because it was in fact the last time I ever saw Tony Gwynn trot out to Right with the rest of the guys.

On the day he died a few of my friends and I texted each other stats we’d dug up. Things like his career strikeout total of 430, or that he hit .381 against Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz combined, or .440 with the bases loaded, and on and on. We texted things we were hearing on the radio or TV, links to Olbermann’s segment, or Buster’s post, or Jonah Keri’s, or Tom Friend’s, or anything else we could get our hands on. We texted jokes to ease the pain, things about Chris Gwynn, Ted Leitner, Steve Garvey, called Trevor Hoffman our Ted Kennedy, and noted that the 90’s had now officially ended. But, more than anything we were mad. We were mad that our hero was taken from us so young, and that that hero openly admitted it was his fault. This wasn’t like Jerry Coleman, who lived a long and incredible life, or Junior Seau, whose death was so dark they closed his restaurant. This was Mr. Padre, Mr. San Diego, the unofficial Mayor, and the guy who made paying for parking at The Murph worth it. The guy who made watching the many pathetically abysmal teams worth it, and he was gone, and it was his fault. I’ll never be able to take my kids to PETCO, in the hopes of seeing Tony throw out the first pitch. I’ll never get to explain to them who he was, as they watch a now slimmed down Tony (wishful thinking) walk off the mound, and wave to the crowd. I’ll never again get the chance to shake his hand.

I was and still am mad. I don’t know when that anger will subside, but I’m waiting for the moment it turns into pure grief. I’m waiting for the moment I can walk down the street and not see someone wearing a Gwynn jersey, leading us into a ten-minute conversation outlining our personal anecdotes and tragedies. Or the day I can walk into a bar, clank glasses with another local, and not convert the empty ping into a lasting echo that swirls above us, hovering memories of what it used to feel like. I wait for those days, and I don’t know when they’ll come, but they will. We’ll collectively move on, never forgetting, but always cherishing. Always taking comfort in the mere fact that one of the all-time greats, in a game filled with ghosts and mythical feats, once roamed our base-paths.

This is what he meant to us. To me.

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