"Lazzari's Sports Roundup" - - - - 6/21/14
Goodbye, "Mr. Padre"
Dear Mr. Gwynn:
I dislike writing pieces like this--about legends taken from this world much before their time; I guess it remains (and always will) a cold reality in a very unfair world. Sometimes, words just aren't enough, y'know? However, I'll give it a try. When I first learned of your death last week at the age of 54, I weeped--yeah, A LOT. Call me a wimp, Tony, but I just have this tremendous emotional attachment to sports greats who do/did things the "right way." You were talented yet hard-working, well-known yet humble, and your devotion to your roots was unmatched. You remain one of my favorite ballplayers of all-time for the aforementioned reasons--and probably many more that won't be touched upon here.
Tony, I guess being one of the greatest hitters of all-time is one reason to be well-liked/respected; the numbers are astounding: 3,141 hits, EIGHT batting titles, a staggering lifetime batting average of .338. You were a 15-time All-Star and FAR from being considered a one-dimensional player; you also grabbed five Gold Glove Awards along the way. In addition, you struck out only 434 times over a 20-year career--just mind-boggling to me as I think of the plethora of free-swinging "whiffers" in the current era. And I still laugh when I remember of one of your "worst" years--1988--just "bad" enough to win yet ANOTHER batting title. Obviously, Cooperstown came calling in 2007. There are many more of your statistics/honors that I can throw out to my readers, Mr. Gwynn, but sometimes admiration and respect go WAY BEYOND the numbers/accolades.
Devotion means a lot to me, Tony, and you were the "poster boy" for it: 20 years with ONE team, a la players like Ripken, Brett, and Jeter (yeah, I love those guys too, Tony). You could have bolted for the riches of larger-market teams, but the southern California fans meant a lot to you. And FAMILY meant a lot to you. You attended San Diego State and it all came full circle when you coached at that school when your pro career was over. Yeah, for some reason, I think your loyalty to the city resulted from a connection with/love for people; the fine weather there was just an added bonus--right, Tony?
Mr. Gwynn--you were class PERSONIFIED. During your 20-year tenure, you played on a DOZEN squads that failed to finish above .500. Not ONCE did I ever hear you complain about losing, bad-mouth under-performing teammates, or voice displeasure about a lack of team success. In fact, you were all ABOUT "team", and I know that no one was more excited than Mr. Padre when you DID get to appear in two World Series ('84 and '98). Though you lost to the Yankees in the '98 Fall Classic, you batted .500 (8-for-16) at the age of 38. Yes, the great ones seem to get it done on the "big stage"--as well.
Tony, the accolades you've received from others border on the infinite--yes, definitive proof of one's greatness. Former Yankees PR man Marty Appel recently told me that when you homered against New York in that '98 Series, he was one of the few Yankee fans who stood up and cheered--LOUDLY. I asked him why. "Simply because he was TONY GWYNN", answered Mr. Appel. Hall of Famer Greg Maddux remarked that you were the best pure hitter he ever faced; wow, that's pretty high praise, Mr. Padre. And I remember getting the rare opportunity of watching you on TV during your prime, Tony--often viewing games with my Dad (a HUGE baseball fan, to say the least). I'd be in the bathroom or at the refrigerator and he'd call out to me, "Hey, Bob, hurry up--GWYNN is at-bat." If you knew my Pop, Tony, you'd know that he saved that type of flattery for only a select few--yes, the truly special ones.
And how could anyone forget the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway, Tony--one of the more magical moments in baseball history. Scenario: All-Stars and Hall of Famers alike converge near the pitcher's mound after the incomparable Ted Williams is brought out on a golf cart. The two of you had become friends over the years--I assume due to your shared studious approach to hitting--and you knew he was ill. You broke through the throng of admirers to chat with your mentor--the look on your face being one of utmost fascination and amazement. Your fellow All-Stars just stood there, too--pie-eyed with mouths wide open--slowly letting the once-in-a lifetime moment sink in. And here YOU were--one of the greatest hitters of my era--chatting with THE GREATEST; you proceeded to remain on the field--providing lateral support to your sick friend while the first pitch was thrown. I don't think I'll ever witness a moment like that in sports, Tony--and I'm sure you felt the same. For some reason, I get the feeling that the two of you are talking hitting right now in a much better place--perhaps with the gruffer "Teddy Ballgame" getting the last word in.
Your selfless nature never went unnoticed, Mr. Gwynn. Former catcher Barry Lyons recently told me that you could have hit a LOT more home runs during your career (in the same mode as Wade Boggs, Ichiro, and others), but decided to stick with the "sweet swing" instead. You knew that more home runs would have made you a lot more money, too--but you simply decided that a higher on-base %/batting average gave your team a better chance of winning. I'm not sure if the player's union would approve of your non-greedy ways these days, Tony. Then again, you always DID do things the "right way."
A major regret, Tony, is that I never had the opportunity to interview you. I inquired about doing so a couple of years ago through the athletic department at San Diego State. They kindly emailed me back immediately--telling me you'd be honored, but that you were tending to personal matters at the time (cancer treatments). Ummm, to this day, I wonder if I read that correctly: YOU'D be the one who'd be honored? YOU?? How come that type of response doesn't surprise me--coming from such a down-to earth, selfless superstar who always simply "got it?"
Rest in peace, Mr. Gwynn. I know that there may still be some rough days ahead to be experienced by your widow, Alicia, along with other family members. But I know smiles/immense joy will be prevalent in the future, as well, as they grasp the reality of having been privy to the presence of such a great MAN--even if for a short time. I'm sorta emotionally speechless at this point, Tony, so I'll just extend an enormous THANK YOU for BEING you. Oh, and while you continue to talk hitting with "The Splendid Splinter", tell him that both the Sox and Padres could REALLY use your bats in both of their line-ups these days. I know you're smiling after hearing that, Tony--and I hope Ted is grinning, too.
Thanks for the memories, Mr. Padre.