Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tony Gwynn, RIP

Right about now, you're probably reading a lot about the late Tony Gwynn.

You're reading personal reminiscences of what it was like to talk with Mr. Gwynn, who by all accounts was an exceedingly kind gentleman who was always generous with his time. You're reading machine-gun fire bursts of stats - .344 career BA with the bases loaded, never struck out against Greg Maddux, 15 All Star teams - to demonstrate his greatness, because ever first-ballot Hall of Famers who get 97.5% of the vote going in get second guessed in this day and age. You're hearing how Gwynn basically invented the use of video to help hitters analyze their swings. You're getting links to clips of him talking with Ted Williams.

None of which you will get here.

I never met Tony Gwynn. Never saw him play live. Never tracked his stats, except when I had him on a fantasy baseball team back in the day. (Every year until he retired, he went for the same $19. And every year, he'd be worth far, far more.) Don't have an anecdote of speaking to him; all my knowledge is second hand.

I pretty much only saw him play late at night, sneaking downstairs to watch Phillies games in San Diego. Watched him chew up the Phillies' pitching staffs, year after  year. Watched him hit it where they weren't, watched him make astonishing art out of the act of hitting a baseball exactly where it needed to be. Watched him change from the skinny kid they paired up with Alan Wiggins at the top of the order for that miracle run in 1984 to the chunky dude who looked like a human being but still hit an unconscious .325, just like he had back in the day. Watched him retire and realized that time catches up to everyone, and that one of the last of the greats from my childhood was done.

Gwynn's gone now. Cancer of the salivary gland, caused (he said) by chewing tobacco. He fought it for years, fought it privately. And now he's gone.

Sunday was Father's Day. We had a cookout at my folks' place. I wore a retro Padres jersey with Gwynn's name and number 19 on the back. It was a gag; Padres for Father's Day, but my baseball-crazed nephew was there and it provided an opening for me to talk to him about how amazing Gwynn was. The wheel turns; one of these days I'll sit down with him and pull up some video of Gwynn being Gwynn, roping line drive after line drive after line drive, and maybe he'll understand. He's a sharp kid; I like to think he will.

It's cliche to say we'll miss a celebrity we never met, never knew. But it's not cliche, it's truth, to say that we'll miss what they stood for, what they and their actions represented to us. And that's how I'll miss Tony Gwynn, the first hitter-as-magician I ever saw, the best hitter-as-magician, too. So thank you, Mr. Gwynn, for all the memories and for all the passion you inspired. I never knew you, but in your own way, you mattered to me.
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