I’ve made it to this point in my life admiring only a handful of people from different walks of life. It’s worth noting that, for some reason or another, none of them are musicians and even fewer are athletes.
In fact, there’s really only one athlete that I can recall as being someone I looked up to while I was a young adult, so much so that when it came time to name my own son, it was with little hesitation (and input from Ann, of course) that Anthony was chosen.
The Anthony in question here is one Anthony Keith Gwynn, Sr., aka Tony Gwynn, aka Mr. Padre. And it was today that my heart sank just a little bit when I heard the news of Gwynn’s passing after battling salivary gland cancer, something probably caused by years of chewing tobacco. He was only 54.
And to just get it out of the way, Gwynn apparently made a long line of poor financial choices and ended up owing somewhere near $400k in back taxes. But then again, that was his personal business and not why I named my son after him. We’ve all made bad choices (financial or otherwise) and the Hall of Fame is not called the Hall of Morals and Ethics, otherwise the place would be a Hall of Nothing if we question what some of its current inductees did in their personal lives. Think about it.
Let’s move on.
Back in the days before I had cable TV, I would watch the Padres on San Diego’s Channel 39 over a regular broadcast signal just to see Gwynn play. It took some time to tune in with rabbit ears but I was able to do it more often than not, and especially on warmer days. I spent many summers watching the games from the comfort of my second-story bedroom some 80 miles away from San Diego and also drove to what was once called Jack Murphy Stadium to see him make a fool of pitchers.
Naturally, being a baseball fan, the most striking thing I found about Gwynn was his sweet swing. It was straight out of a Charley Lau textbook on the subject of hitting, books I read while I tried to perfect my swing at the local batting cages. I often watched Gwynn and eventually modeled my swing after his. Not only was he a great hitter but also one with an uncanny ability to hit anywhere on the field, especially holes in the infield. There was really nowhere that the opposing team could play the guy because they never knew where he would be spraying the ball.
There are also a few personal memories I have of Gwynn, ones that stand out more than any others.
The first one took place at Dodger Stadium. I was with a group of people I used to work with at Target watching the game. The game started and naturally, Gwynn was the lead-off hitter. I told one of my coworkers, “Watch him. He’s going after the first pitch.”
Tom Candiotti, a known knuckleballer, floated the first pitch of the game to Gwynn which he promptly smacked into right field for a hit. Keep in mind that the knuckleball is one of the toughest pitches to hit and Gwynn just went to town with the thing. It was amazing.
Then there was the time I got his autograph at Anaheim Stadium, where he signed for as many fans as he could. It’s difficult to find a ballplayer even of the lowest caliber doing that in this day and age.
Another time in San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium, I witnessed Gwynn and John Kruk throwing baseballs high into the stands during batting practice in an attempt to hit the giant video screen. Kruk came closer than Gwynn who was laughing too hard at what he and Kruk were up to.
Here’s an odd one. When Ann and I were shopping for a spa years ago, we visited a vendor at the Orange County Fair who was from San Diego. He saw me wearing my Tony Gwynn jersey and immediately started to criticize him for his tax problems. We immediately left his booth and went to another where we gladly dropped nearly $3,000 on a spa. Hope he was happy in expressing his opinion, an opinion that cost him a nice sale.
And just last year, I was finally able to make it to PETCO Park to watch the Dodgers battle the Padres. And although I’m smiling in this picture, I have to tell you that I was pretty emotional about standing there with Anthony, in front of a statue erected in honor of my favorite baseball player, the one I named my son after.
Lastly, I was privileged to witness the greatness that was Tony Gwynn back in the early ‘90s when I had a Field Pass to Anaheim Stadium (when I had connections for such things). I rarely used it but didn’t pass up the opportunity to watch Gwynn during a few Spring Training exhibition games. Watching him up close doing his thing was absolutely incredible. Here are few shots from one of the games that I never posted anywhere up until today when I posted them to Instagram. These are all scans from 35mm film.
And of course, it helps that Gwynn’s family resided in Long Beach for many years and he attended Long Beach Poly, Ann’s high school, where their baseball field is named in the family’s honor.
So many memories and all of them good. And that’s just from me. The baseball community is still churning out stories on what an incredible guy Gwynn was, not only as a player but as a person. He left an indelible mark on his fellow teammates, fans, and the game of baseball. And these are just my recollections of the man. His numbers and achievements speak for themselves.
Rest in peace, Mr. Padre. Your legacy will never be forgotten.