Forget baseball. There are not enough people in life like Tony Gwynn
Trying to describe the enormous loss of Tony Gwynn is an enormously lost cause. It’s like you woke up one morning and Balboa Park was gone. Or Moonlight Beach. Or any other San Diego landmark that fell somewhere between a civic treasure and a natural resource.
Tony Gwynn was both. He was up there somewhere between the moon and the stars in our world. Or, as Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler said so eloquently, "the only thing more dependable in San Diego than sunshine was Tony Gwynn."
Now what? The sun leaves us?
For two decades, you went to Jack Murphy (and then Qualcomm) Stadium knowing you would see this "artisan with a bat," as his Hall of Fame plaque beautifully puts it, elegantly work his craft.
Afterward, you could see him teach young baseball players at San Diego State, talk the game with us from the Padres broadcast booth and get elected to the Hall of Fame.
With that infectious cackle and those twinkling eyes, Gwynn was our friend and neighbor, a point of civic pride who always was present and exquisitely welcome at Fourth of July parties, backyard barbecues and in our family rooms. Yes, his appearances usually came via a television or radio, but he was as much a part of our summers as laughter and warmth.
And then the telephone rang on the saddest of Monday mornings, and Tony Gwynn, 54, suddenly was for the ages. Summer just got colder.
It still doesn’t seem real. Greg Maddux, on Twitter, called Gwynn "the best pure hitter I ever faced." Tim Flannery, on Facebook, wrote, "I will carry your light friend, I will remember how you made us feel better for knowing you, and being your teammate."
When Gwynn was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2007, it was with 97.6 percent of the vote. Only six players ever received a higher percentage en route to Cooperstown: Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Cal Ripken, Ty Cobb, George Brett and Hank Aaron.
As for the 2.4 percent who did not vote for Gwynn, I cannot explain that. Maybe they were writers who missed Gwynn because they were playing hooky at the San Diego Zoo those days.
Here’s the thing with any great artist: As his works begin to stack up, you often don’t realize what you have until he’s toward the end. And so it was with Gwynn, who wound up tied with Honus Wagner with a record eight National League batting titles.
Sure, Gwynn starred early on, helping lead the Padres to their first World Series ever in 1984. But it wasn’t until batting title No. 4 … and 5 … and 6 … that it became clear just what kind of gift we had in our midst.
His numbers were silly. He hit .300 or above over 19 consecutive seasons wearing out the "5.5 hole" between shortstop and third base. He scorched Maddux, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame next month, for a .415 batting average over 107 career at-bats.
He struck out just 15 times in 535 at-bats in 1995. Fifteen! Today, some guys punch out 15 times before their second cup of coffee.
Of the 28 men in baseball’s 3,000-hit club, only Paul Waner (376 in 9,459 at-bats) whiffed fewer times than Gwynn (434 in 9,288 at-bats). And Gwynn’s .338 lifetime batting average is the highest of any player who started his career after World War II.
But Tony Gwynn was more than just a pile of numbers in the way that a sunset is far more than the scheduled time listed on your iPhone.
"When you laugh and you can laugh at yourself and laugh at others, that makes the game a whole lot easier to play," Gwynn said during my favorite part of his induction speech that hot July afternoon in Cooperstown in ’07.
Laughter also makes life a whole lot easier to live, laughter of all kinds, and the soundtrack to each one of Tony’s 3,121 career hits surely was his inimitable, high-pitched cackle. It came early and often, just like his hits, and it gained momentum as it went.
What was priceless about Gwynn – despite the San Diego discount he once said he invented, referring to hometown deals he continually accepted instead of testing the free agent market – was the entire package.
It wasn’t simply the bat he wielded like a magician’s wand, or the numbers that stacked up like cordwood. It was the scientific way he approached his craft, pioneering today’s video age by lugging prehistoric VCR machines with him on the road. It was his abiding passion for the game, and how he loved to talk about it, chew on it, roll it around in the infield dirt with anybody fortunate enough to enter his orbit.
I consider it one of the true blessings of my life that I had the great fortune to become one of those people.
I wrote about his duel for the NL batting title with the Giants’ Will Clark during the final weekend of the 1989 season in Jack Murphy Stadium, one of the most dramatic (and fun) weekends I can remember. Gwynn reveled in every moment.
I watched Tony slide across home plate to win the 1994 All-Star Game from the Three Rivers Stadium press box in Pittsburgh. I worked hit No. 2,999 in August, 1999, in St. Louis (and still wish he could have knocked No. 3,000 that night instead of the next night in Montreal).
I sat in the sun hanging on every word during his Hall of Fame induction speech in Cooperstown. And two Aprils ago, I sat with Tony for a good, long while at San Diego State and listened to his memories of being with Ted Williams at the 1999 All-Star Game for a story of the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park.
Each moment with this man was a moment to be cherished. No kinder superstar ever played this game. No Padre before or after has had as much soul as Mr. Padre.
My favorite moment, though, came during the 1995 players’ strike. Marooned in Fort Myers, Fla., covering the fiasco that was the "replacement players," I phoned Gwynn’s house one evening to do a story on his run at .400 the year before. He was at .394 when the strike was called on Aug. 12, 1994, and believed until the end that he could have become the first man since his friend Ted Williams (.406 in 1941) to do it.
He answered the phone that evening, listened to the voice calling from Florida and replied: "Hold on a sec. Let me put my dinner back in the oven."
That was Tony. Always, he had time to talk baseball.
But there was something else about Tony, and the more radio interviews I did as all of us digested Monday’s terrible news together, the more it became clear: As I told some of these stories, I became a little more self-conscious with each one, because the last thing I wanted to do was give the impression that I had some kind of unique relationship with the man.
The magic of Tony Gwynn was that so many of us were touched by him over the years, whether we were teammates, reporters, fans or simply somebody who bumped into him at the mall or in a restaurant. He had a chuckle, a smile, a kind word for everybody.
Forget baseball. There are not enough people in life like that.
You can replace the 3,121 career hits. You can replace the Gold Gloves. Hell, one of these days, the Padres will even find their way back into the World Series again.
But there is no replacing the ray of light that was Tony Gwynn. That ever-present San Diego sun? Going forward, it’s going to have to work a whole lot of overtime.