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MY TURN AT BAT

A Padre for the Ages
By John L. Nunes

 

There is a lot of talk about heroes lately. Deservedly so. As author Bernard Malamud wrote in his novel The Natural, when we are without heroes, we "don't know how far we can go."

For the past two decades Tony Gwynn has been the kind of hero who has lifted the spirits of millions and inspired the working man to drive himself harder—on and off the ball fields of America. He did it with a 30.5-ounce piece of smooth ash wood, a winning smile, a Boy Scout's sense of fairness, a big heart, and an incredibly intense work ethic.

As a San Diegan and former journalist, I was fortunate to meet Tony on two occasions: First, early in his major league career and then about fifteen years later, near the end of that career. During this span, in which he achieved legendary status, Gwynn remained the same approachable nice guy.

In the so-called small-market baseball city of San Diego, where the eight-time batting champ toiled as a Padre for his entire major league career, forty-one-year-old Anthony Keith Gwynn is so loved that he could be elected mayor by simply stepping up to the plate.

Tony, any chance you will run for political office?

"Not a chance," he recently told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I curse too much, and I'm too honest."

As sports fans know, Tony Gwynn retired this past season from playing professional ball. Like Cal Ripken Jr., Tony announced plans to leave The Show about halfway through the 2001 season. To its credit, the baseball world seized the opportunity to pay tribute to these extraordinary athletes as they competed for their final time in major league parks across the country.

Watching Tony accept these accolades throughout the last weeks of the regular season, I was struck by his charming blend of humbleness and showmanship. Much of the time, he looked embarrassed, as if he didn't deserve the praise and gifts. Often, he would stare down at the ground and shake his head while waving his cap to the adoring crowd. He is the antithesis of a prima donna, a man both comfortable and uncomfortable with the limelight.

October 7, the date the United States began bombing Afghanistan, was Tony's final day as a major leaguer. His chronic knee injuries prevented him from playing the field. In the ninth inning, the crowd roared to its feet when number nineteen strode to the plate to pinch hit. Contemporary baseball's purest hitter drilled the first pitch—a ninety-one-mile-per-hour fastball delivered by rookie Jose Jimenez—toward his now-famous "5.5 hole" (between the third baseman and shortstop), but the ball failed to get through and ended up a groundout to short. Seems Tony just wanted to get that last at bat over with, because he rarely swings at first pitches.

The Padres lost miserably to the Colorado Rockies that day, 14–5, but it mattered not to the 60,103 fans in Qualcomm Stadium. We were there to take part in Tony's farewell ceremonies. Billed as a thirty- to forty- minute event, the ceremony ran an hour and a half. Again, no one seemed to mind. There was much to say, many hugs, and constant applause. Occasionally, the crowd would shout that chant familiar to Padre fans: "Toe-knee! Toe-knee! Toe-knee!" Others in the stands would declare without inhibition, "We love you, Tony!"

Much like the old TV show This Is Your Life, players and managers from Tony's past, as well as his entire family, marched onto the field to pay tribute. Perhaps the most dramatic moment came when the Padres entire starting lineup from July 19, 1982—Tony's first start in the majors—trotted down the stadium runway and onto the field, assuming their old positions. They wore those ugly brown-and-mustard Padre jerseys.

On the field from 1982 were some highly forgettable guys like first baseman Broderick Perkins, third baseman Luis Salazar, and outfielders Gene Richards and Sixto Lezcano. There were also a couple of stars on that team who factored greatly in 1984 when the Padres won the National League pennant: shortstop Garry Templeton and catcher Terry Kennedy. In 1982, Tony played center field. For the October 7 tribute, his son and budding college ballplayer, Anthony, stood in that position to represent his father.

And, of course, there was Steve Garvey from the championship 84 season; Dave Winfield, currently the only player in the Hall of Fame to be inducted as a San Diego Padre; and the affable John Kruk. Even "Trader Jack" McKeon and Dick Williams showed up, along with Padre home run king Nate Colbert and former closer Mark Davis.

The Padres organization staged a fitting, entertaining ceremony with the right dosage of melodrama. It helped that Bob Costas emceed.

Eventually, Tony was handed the microphone to say a few words. Over the years, Gwynn has become a man of many words, sort of a Will Rogers of baseball. He spoke for close to half an hour, and most of that time was spent paying tribute to his teammates of today and yesteryear, the management, his family, and, of course, the fans.

He had no prepared script, no TelePrompTer, and he spoke from the heart. Fans in the stands, as well as honored guests on the field, cheered, applauded, laughed, and cried throughout. (I woke up sore the next morning from clapping so hard and so often.) Fighting back tears, Tony told the attentive crowd, "I thought I was prepared for today, but I've go to tell you, I am in shock."

Ever the promoter, he invited everyone to come support the Aztecs. "We're just about a five-minute drive from here," he said, pointing in the direction of San Diego State University, where he starred in baseball and basketball.

Gwynn also made a point of paying special tribute to his current teammates, singling out Trevor Hoffman, Ryan Klesko, and Phil Nevin as the club's leaders. He even made a pitch for Nevin to be re-signed, indicating that the Padre ownership would be making a big mistake if Nevin wasn't retained. Owner John Moores was on the field, well within earshot.

Immediately following the ceremony, Tony shook hands with fans reaching out to him from the field section. He made sure to make his way along every inch of both foul lines.

Gwynn is famous for showing up at the ballpark well before any of his teammates, while often being the last to leave. October 7 was no exception. He arrived at 8:30 A.M. that Sunday, even though game time was not until 3:05 P.M. At 10 P.M., he was still there—emptying his locker and signing autographs.

Fortunately for San Diegans and athletes nationwide who aspire to play college ball, Tony is not leaving us, nor is he leaving baseball. He is returning to his alma mater (and mine)—San Diego State University—to take the head coaching job. He will replace Jim Dietz, who is retiring after coaching Gwynn, Mark Grace, Travis Lee, Chris Gwynn, and countless others over the past thirty years. During that span, Dietz amassed an impressive 1,188–727 record.

Tony aspires to do even better. Once he made it known that he wanted the SDSU job, no one else bothered to apply. And, with a work ethic that far surpasses most of us, Tony showed up on campus the morning after his final major league game (and farewell festivities) to put in a fourteen-hour day. Dressed in college and Padre colors (red shoes, pinstriped Padres game pants, a gray and red shirt, and a red cap), Gwynn strolled through campus, taking care of new employee business. He was photographed for his college I.D. and picked up a parking pass. He also found time to sign about twenty autographs and smile a lot for surprised students and faculty. And he managed to make his way across campus to Tony Gwynn Stadium,* where he shared a few hitting tips with members of the Aztec baseball team, which includes his son, Anthony, a sophomore.

Three days after Tony was on campus, he reported for knee surgery. The guy never rests. Wonder what activities he has in mind while rehabbing? My guess is he will do a lot more than play golf and watch football on TV—two of his passions.

I first met Gwynn in March 1985 at Padres spring training in Yuma, Arizona. On assignment for Sport magazine, I was interviewing key members of the team for a piece on catcher Terry Kennedy. At the time, the Padres were the National League defending champions. The interview with Tony lasted only a few minutes. It took place in the locker room where he and his teammates were dressing after an exhibition game.

Gwynn was twenty-four and entering his second full season as a major leaguer. In his first full season (1984), Tony won his first batting title with a .351 average. Incredibly, he hit over .300 for nineteen consecutive seasons.

On that spring day, Tony said he was more than happy to discuss his teammate T.K. The young Gwynn wasn't as chatty as he is now. That would come with age and seniority. But he flashed his signature smile, twinkled those bright eyes, and said some nice things about Kennedy.

In fact, the only person I'd ever heard or read that Tony Gwynn had said anything bad about was Jack Clark. The veteran first baseman came to San Diego in 1989 and was instrumental in pitting teammates against one another. Clark often harangued about Gwynn to the sports media. Eventually, Gwynn fired back. That must have been difficult for a guy like Tony.

In Men at Work, George Will's classic book that closely examined Gwynn, the journalist wrote that "Gwynn is an almost unfailingly cheerful man who is almost always trying to be morose. Trying but failing. He may be the most liked player in baseball. That is because of the radical difference between his amiableness toward others and his severity toward himself."

The second time I met Tony Gwynn was at a National Conference for Community and Justice dinner two years ago, where he and his wife, Alicia, were honored. Before the program, I walked over to where the athlete, in suit and tie, was standing and waited patiently while a television reporter from Tijuana interviewed him.

When we shook hands, I told Tony of our first encounter and quickly made it clear that I did not expect him to recall me. After all, some fifteen years had passed. Gwynn frowned in an apparent attempt to remember, then shook hands more vigorously. "Good to see you again."

What a guy! Without a doubt, he had no clue who I was but was kind enough to feign recognition. I told him that I didn't expect to be remembered. That I just wanted to say hello, this time as a fan. That I really appreciated what he has done for San Diego, for baseball, for me.

I'm looking forward to our third meeting. I have a feeling it will take place at my alma mater, SDSU. I'm planning to see a lot of Aztec baseball. Me and thousands of others, no doubt, many of whom have never before taken in a San Diego State baseball game. And when I meet Tony again, I'm confident that he will be the same good-natured, gracious person who was kind enough to share a few moments with me. May others be so lucky.

—EFQ

*Padres majority owner John Moores insisted that San Diego State University name its new $6 million ballpark after his right fielder and their alum. Moores, you see, donated the money to build it in 1996. Baseball America has ranked Tony Gwynn Stadium as the fifth-best collegiate facility in the nation and the second-best park in the western half of the nation. Combine the facility with sunny San Diego and Tony at the helm of the baseball program, and the university has the potential to establish an NCAA baseball dynasty.

 

JOHN L. NUNES is a marketing and public relations director for San Diego Mesa College. A former Southern California newspaper reporter who occasionally pens freelance articles, he finds that his inspiration for writing usually comes from baseball. He recently completed a baseball novel which is being shopped to agents.

© 2002 John L. Nunes

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