I know I am now 3 days late in posting about this, but this week has been a bit of a tough one. Though I’ve never been one to have “idols” or “heroes,” I have always had a shortlist of people I deeply admire and will always look up to. One of the first people I ever admired is Tony Gwynn. An enormous chunk of my childhood memories consist of sitting in the cheap seats of Jack Murphy stadium (prior to its purchase by Qualcomm) watching Mr. Padre out in right field.
He was like a living embodiment of Old Faithful, always there. You could see his smile a mile away, hear his laugh almost as far, and he just LOVED the game and his fans. More than once he had the chance to leave San Diego in favor of a larger ball club and earn more money, but he turned it down. San Diego was his home and he wanted to stay with us. So we would watch, and wonder, and wait for the next great hit, the next great catch, and that next smile.
By the time he retired he had racked up a pretty impressive list of accolades in both fielding and hitting. Despite the awesomeness of the photo I found online (left) that my older brother used to have a poster of, he actually earned a total of 8 batting titles (silver sluggers). He also earned 5 golden gloves for his work in the outfield, had over 3,100 career hits, and was invited to play in 15 All Star games.
Through all of his hard work, and all the awards, he earned a place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007. There were only 2 inductees that year: Mr. Gwynn, and Cal Ripken Jr.
All of those things are statistics you could read in any of the dozens (hundreds?) of articles written about Mr. Padre after this last week. Honestly, those are the fantastic reasons to admire his talents and career, but that’s not why I remember liking him. I remember liking him because he was a good guy. Like I said previously, the smile and laugh, unrelenting reliability, oh, and the man was approachable. He was never the type to hide behind security guards and act like he was above the fans that ultimately granted him the career that he enjoyed.
There was one opening day at the stadium where he and about a dozen other players joined the security company at the gates and took over the task of handing out the free give away shirts. I wasn’t lucky enough to be in the line he was working but I came in with my parents just a few lines over and had the chance to get a few photos of him while he was there. That signature smile was lit up like a neon sign and he was truly enjoying meeting the fans. He was a gentleman, and a mentor. He was loyal to his city, his team, and his fans. He was never one to engage in trash talk or complain about his job. Unlike some of the celebrities you see that project a God-complex, he always remained humble.
Somewhere in a trunk at my parents’ house, I still have a stack of baseball cards that are nothing but Tony Gwynn, I have a jersey-look tee shirt with his number on the back, and I’m fairly certain I still have a box of Wheaties with him on it from 2007 when he was inducted into the hall of fame. He was one of a very few athletes I have ever really followed and his passing was a crushing blow to my childhood.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Padre.