Southern Oregon was a long way from San Diego, but my family always maintained our roots; particularly when it came to sports. It was my Dad who officially introduced me to baseball and I still remember the conversation quite well. I must have been in second grade at the time and he explained a little about the game and told me about the San Diego Padres. To be honest, I didn’t think too much of the conversation, but I knew that my parents, grandmother and older brothers all liked baseball, so I wasn’t turned off by the idea. Around the same time, I remember kids starting to play little league and being slightly jealous. Not that they were actually playing, but more so that I could not take part in the conversations about their games. Related to this, a lot of kids I knew went to the local Medford A’s games and in turn were fans of the Oakland A’s. I almost feel like it was the “cool” thing to do. The same went for collecting and trading baseball cards. After a short period of time, I wanted in on all of these things as well and before that year was over, I was consumed by it all.
I come from a family of long-time San Diego Padres fans and that for some members of my family, this goes back to the days of the old Pacific Coast League Padres. Once I personally became interested in the team, this meant getting my hands on every single Padres baseball card possible. I remember being absolutely fascinated with the brown and orange that Padres players donned on my 1987 & 1988 Topps cards. However, what captivated me the most was the guy who wore #19 for the Padres, Tony Gwynn.
I have so many fond childhood memories that involve Tony Gwynn on some level or another: I remember the Gwynn-related magazine and newspaper clippings on my bedroom walls. I remember countless conversations with family about him. I remember my Grandma meeting him on different occasions and her telling him about me and even attempting to organize a phone call between us (unfortunately this never happened). I remember saving paper route money to buy an autographed photo of him. I remember my Mom getting me his 1983 Fleer rookie card for Christmas one year and just staring at it in amazement. I remember seeing his 2000th career hit in person and being so happy that tears came to my eyes. I remember attempting to negotiate a trade for a Gwynn Donruss card that my brother got in a pack while playing left field during a little league game (he was behind a fence watching and had just opened a pack). I remember writing #19 on bills of my caps.
I honestly can go on and on. In a way, I think it’s safe to say that Tony Gwynn was and is a big part of who I am. I’ve always thought this was odd, since in many ways, I’ve always disliked the idea of idolizing people. I guess Tony Gwynn is one of the few exceptions I’ve made in regards to this.
Like many people, I knew he was sick. I knew the cancer had returned and that he was being treated again. However, this time was different as there was an uneasiness about it all. All you had to do was read between the lines to know that something was very wrong. He was not able to attend the 1984 San Diego Padres celebration back in May and speculation began that this was quite serious. Still, when I got the news the morning Tony passed away, I was in complete shock. At first I didn’t think it was possible and I felt numb. This quickly changed and I have no problem admitting that I shed tears that day and on different occasions since. This is something I experienced when Jerry Coleman passed away in January, but with Tony, it went much deeper. The Padres, the city of San Diego, the world of baseball and many people I care about all lost someone that meant a lot to them. It shook me to my core.
I never met the guy, but he was my hero due to what he accomplished on the field and the person he was off the field. How I felt about the guy never changed. Even during the time in my life when interest in baseball often took a backseat to things like music and skateboarding, I always managed to check box scores and read articles to stay updated on how he was playing. There’s a reason I kept everything from my childhood Tony Gwynn collection and have continued to add to it in adulthood. Simple enough, the guy was special and had an impact on me.
My grandmother passed away this last November and my whole life, up until she got sick, I would call her and talk about baseball. Specifically the Padres, and for many years this meant Tony Gwynn. She would have been heartbroken if she knew that Tony had passed at such an early age. She absolutely adored the man. I spent a lot of my childhood talking to my own late mother about this him as well. She also thought he was great, although her favorite all-time Padre was Goose Gossage. In the last month since Tony passed away, I’ve had multiple conversations with my Dad about Tony. What I’m getting at is that Tony Gwynn was special and impacted so many people in a positive way and in my case, he impacted 3 generations of my family. I’d have a hard time believing that this is unique to just my family.
Sportswriter Barry Bloom recently said that “Tony Gwynn may be the single most important sports figure in history to a single community.” To some, this may be a bold statement, but not me, I believe in it whole heartily. Like many people, I’m still having a hard time grasping the fact that this person, who was a big part of my childhood and represents so much about the game I love has died.
With that said, it brings me joy knowing that there was a Tony Gwynn in this world and that I had such a great guy to look up to as a kid. Mr. Padre may be gone, but I think it’s safe to say that he will never, ever be forgotten.