How Do You Say Goodbye to Your Hero?
By Andrew Smith
El Cajon (6/17/2014) – I first have to preface this with the obvious fact that I don’t take death well at all. If you’re at a funeral that I’m also attending, I’m the last person you want to look at because I will be flat-out balling my eyes out.
Luckily, I have a small family and haven’t lost hardly anyone, but I’ve lived through it with friends. The closest thing I have really lost myself was my best friend — that was my pet beagle named “Boomer” and I was a mess then.
Secondly, I rambled on way too long in this piece, but this brings forward an unanswerable dilemma that I will never learn and this just proves it.
How in the world do you say goodbye to your childhood hero???
Forget all the baseball accolades “Mr. Padre” Tony Gwynn racked up over his 20-year career with them because the only real number than fits our fallen hero is #1.
Our “King of Swing” was much much more than a just hall-of-fame baseball player, he was one of the greatest human beings in the history of San Diego and he will forever be remembered as just such.
Even after his brilliant career was over he was a true local legend. He coached SDSU baseball, still made the rounds on countless radio shows and made public appearances despite battling his fatal fight with cancer.
Anyone with the honor of knowing him or even got the chance to meet him was instantly treated like his best friend that he could share a laugh with.
The very first memories I have of falling in love with baseball came when I was four years old. The year was 1984 and the Padres were in World Series against Motown.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a neighborhood with about 12 guys around my age that loved sports just as much as the next. We played sports in the streets after school every day and loved it.
During that series we all played in the yard while my friends’ mom would watch us and give us all the updates, but when Tony got to the plate we all stopped and listened to it after she would yell “Tony’s up!”
Now that can take a look back on my childhood as an adult I feel so lucky to be born when I was.
In the 80’s I got to pick my favorites like Gwynn, Marino and Jordan, but I also was able to watch almost their entire careers from beginning to end.
The 90’s, in my opinion, was one of the greatest decades of sports in history, but I might be biased. We will probably never see a team like Jordan’s Bulls dominate the game of basketball and football varies, but we may never see another hitter like Gwynn maybe in our lifetime.
This year’s version of the Padres is currently hitting .215 as a team and Tony’s single season low was .309 in his first full year on the team. 19 straight seasons of batting over in today’s game in flat out ridiculous and that’s exactly how watching him hit felt like…almost unfair for the pitcher.
He patented the 5.5 hole on the regular and never struck out it seemed. Two of the best pitchers in baseball in his prime, Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux, were never able to strike him out and only once in his career did he punch out 3 times in one game.
Ted Williams is revered by many sports writer as the best hitter of all-time and the last to hit .400 in a season. Back in 1999 when they asked him to throw out the first pitch at Fenway Park he requested the help of Gwynn as he saw the same in him.
The Padres of the 90’s were just so much fun. Maybe that’s because life still wasn’t too serious for me yet as a teen. We had good teams in the early years, but until baseball realigned to three divisions in 1994 we stood no shot of the playoffs against the Braves era in the NL West.
We finally had a shot after that point. See ya later, Atlanta but we’ll gladly take Fred McGriff from you, as well as add Gary Sheffield from Milwaukee and we suddenly stood a chance.
In ’94 Gwynn accomplished his best year average wise at .394, but the season was cut short due to a strike and his best shot at hitting .400 came to halt in the middle of August. That was the first year of five straight years that he would top .350.
As a kid, before they had cables deals that broadcast every game, I would go to as many games as I could beg my parents to take me to. All of that would change in 1996 when I got my driver’s license and a car.
I spent the entire summer that year at Qualcomm and the Pads finally made the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. Even though they came up short that year it set up the magic of the 1998 season.
As if your senior year of high isn’t fun enough…I got to experience it with what was for my money the greatest year of baseball in my entire life.
Tony was still peaking and so were the Padres as a group after adding some key free agents, but the entire baseball world was mesmerized by the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run chase of Roger Maris’s magical number 61.
For the whole summer the entire country LOVED baseball which is what the sport needed after the ’94 strike. Especially San Diegans that knew our team was far better than the ’96 squad and we really might have the best team in the NL.
We were so good that year that we were fighting for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs late in the season and they were vocal about it in the media.
McGwire ended with 70 and Sosa had 66 at the end of the year. Sosa sat on 62 when he visited the Cubs came to Qualcomm late in the season so for three days he jam-packed the stadium.
I had the opportunity to go the second game to see him and he came up late in the game with the bases loaded and he hit No. 63 into the upper deck down the left field line.
Even Padres fans stood and cheered the sheer feat of what they had just seen. To this day I have never been more impressed in person at the ball park.
Gwynn and the Padres after the game were mad about the fans cheering because it basically cost them the game, yet the entire place was buzzing, and our team had already sealed a playoff spot.
We went on to face a Yankees team that was too good for us that season. A homerun by Gwynn in Game 1 went on to be his favorite hit of his career because of the stage it was on.
We actually held a lead late in the game and Mark Langston struck out Tino Martinez with a fastball right down the middle, only he didn’t get the call. Next pitch was a grand slam that I still believe changed the entire series in their favor for a 4-game sweep (IT WAS A STRIKE!!!).
In ’99 it wasn’t all about Tony’s Y3K chase for 3,000 hits. It was just a matter of when?
For years, one of my good friend’s dad would take us on a Vegas trip with another friend and his younger brother brought a couple of buddies along with him.
On this particular trip we were staying at the Luxor and they had a talking robot that could hold a conversation with you. I personally found it annoying, but the younger crowd and tourists loved it.
It was August 6th and the Pads were in Montreal. While were getting ready to go out for dinner the game was in in our hotel room, but I was there alone watching at the time running late. I waited one final time for an at-bat and he did it with a single leading to the entire team going onto the field to congratulate him as well as his wife and mother.
It was six years to the day of getting No. 2000 and coincidentally both also came on his mom’s birthday.
Our group was on watch for it the entire trip so after leaping up and down in our room I ran down to spread the word to the rest of the group.
Unable to find anyone for several minutes I found the younger kids of our group in a big group of people surrounding that stupid talking robot, which also included several people wearing Padres gear.
I made my way to the middle of the group and broke the news to that robot before anyone else in the crowd had heard the news and we I ended up having a 15 minute conversation about it with it in front of a big crowd in what looked like a staged show on the Vegas strip.
I’ll never forget the moment when my friends finally saw me and came up to ask what I was doing because they knew I hated that robot so much but saw me yelling at it in excitement they thought I had snapped, but when I broke the news to them the other stranglers who joined the party late and cheered about hearing the news like it was a World Cup goal for the USA.
Tony’s retirement was sad, but expected and the all-time stats are nothing short of amazement for anyone that wants to waste some time on Wikipedia in sheer awe.
Shortly after his career ended I came back from college and was managing a pizza place in Rancho Bernardo. I got a late night order and after gaining the customer’s phone number Anthony Gwynn’s name came onto my screen.
After taking the order for what turned out to be his favorite, just a normal cheese pizza, I had talked to him enough to realize who he really was and this was no joke!
I calmly said, “Tony I’ve always been a huge fan of yours and the love the Padres!”
“Well thank you man,” he replied. “Does that mean you can give me a discount?”
I handed out free pizzas left and right at that job, but for the one time it just didn’t feel right.
I said in an attempt to be funny, “Sorry, we only hand out deals to people who have actually hit over .400.”
He busted out with his infamous laugh and it was just like every story you had ever heard or read about him.
“I like that business approach,” he said. “It feels pretty full-proof now that I’m done.”
We ended up talking baseball for a while after and he turned out to be a weekly regular always ordering that same one large cheese pizza. It didn’t matter how many pizzas I had to make if he wanted to talk baseball I wasn’t going back to work until I absolutely had too.
It legitimately felt like I was friends with my one of my heroes on some strange sort of level.
I met several years later in person for the first time at the baseball CIF titles games played on his field at the SDSU stadium named after him. Between games it was the job of his players to get the field ready for the next.
He would come into the press box and watch a few innings with a whopping all 4 of us media guys. Hang out and talk baseball with us again like we were all a tightly knit group of friends just hanging out.
The first thing he asked was how are you all doing, when all we wanted was to ask him the same because of his health problems, but he was just that kind of guy.
The ego of big-time athletes can be outrageous in today’s day and age, but Tony made everyone in the room feel like they just as ordinary as him. It didn’t take much to get him to laugh, but when you did everyone joined in it was just that contagious.
I’ve spent 30+ years of my life rooting for Gwynn and I don’t ever think I will ever fall in baseball love with any other Padre in my life. I have never been a fan of Petco Park because Qualcomm was perfect in my eyes and I hate going downtown for anything.
I feel bad for kids now-a-days that have to watch such an anemic Padres offense year in and year out in such a pitcher friendly park with anyone hardly getting close to reaching .300 unless it’s a career year.
I highly doubt any sports figure will be as important to one single town and spend an entire Hall of Fame career there the whole time turning into his own.
He will always be my favorite athlete of all-time and I think he deserves every kind word anyone ever says about him, but don’t expect to see me at his public gathering.
Not me! No how!
I attempted to go to Jerry Coleman’s and spent the majority fighting off tears unsuccessfully.
It took two days to put my thoughts about Gwynn’s passing into words, along with countless tears onto a keyboard that wouldn’t surprise me if I broke it in the process.
I will be watching at home online instead with several Kleenex boxes close at hand for the oncoming flood gates that are ultimately inevitable.
Put all the baseball stats, batting titles, All-Star games and awards behind…
If there really is a heaven Tony Gwynn, the person, not the Hall of Fame athlete, is definitely up there looking down on San Diego. I will always remember my childhood hero and may he forever rest in peace.