Sunday, June 22, 2014
RIP Tony Gwynn, Mr. Padre
One of the things I love most about my wife is her compassion. Nearly once a week when a celebrity or notable figure passes away she feels deeply. It is usually my role to remind her what an amazing life that person led, and that we should all be so lucky. It happens so often. It is something I just accept as the cycle of life. I usually take a moment to consider any memories I have of the deceased and move along with my day.
This case is quite different. Gwynn was one of the most influential athletes of my life, and as a San Diego native and baseball fanatic, he was uniquely mine. He was the pride of the San Diego when there wasn't much to go around, earning him the nickname Mr. Padre. There have been so many beautiful words written about his passing because he was the most universally beloved athlete of my lifetime. The fact that he was a Padre made him that much more special to me. Everyone admired his jovial disposition, humility and generosity. His career produced some of the most staggering statistics in baseball history, yet he will be remembered more for the way treated others. It didn't matter if you were a laundry room employee, the mayor, or a kid at a spring training game that wanted nothing more than for him to acknowledge you, he treated everyone he encountered with the same genial regard.
His passing stunned and saddened me more than any public persona ever has. I still feel hollow and try to follow my own advice about accentuating the positives that came from his time on Earth. But, that is much easier said than done because of the personal connection I feel towards him, and how suddenly and before his time he passed on. Baseball, the Padres, San Diego and Gwynn played such a huge part of my childhood and the lives of my family.
That was not the first time I had met Gwynn. The Padres used to have "picture day" where kids could go on the field and families would take pictures of their kids with players. Again, my memories of Gwynn were so positive. Most of the players were tired of dealing with kids and pictures. They were there out of obligation and would rather be in the clubhouse spitting sunflower seeds than posing over and over with snot nosed children and overzealous parents. Gwynn, by far the biggest star in San Diego, appeared to be enjoying himself. He spent time with each kid that took a picture with him. He talked, smiled and laughed and when I was finished having my picture taken with him, I was euphoric. I have pictures with several of the other players, but I remember taking my picture with Gwynn because of how he made the experience.
Tony Gwynn was all of San Diego's to treasure. At least half of the teams he played on were bad. As a member of the Padres he played in both World Series in franchise history, but the team was only able to win one game in two series. He could have played for any team he wanted to, and for a lot more money, but San Diego was his home and he was uniquely loyal to the organization. No one would have blamed him for chasing a championship. No one would have blamed him for taking twice the salary he was being paid. But, he would have left a huge void in the city he became a hero in, and I think he knew that.
He was a community hero. Forget what he could do on the field. What he did for the city was a hundred times more important. What San Diego lacks in success on the field has been more than made up for with the integrity, decency and character of its biggest stars. None were more important than Gwynn, and I doubt there will ever be another like him. He was a once in a lifetime human being and you can't find a single person to tell you otherwise.
Perhaps some good will continue to come from his untimely death with a greater awareness of the dangers of smokeless tobacco. Doctors weren't convinced that chewing caused his mouth cancer, but he was sure that it did. Baseball and smokeless tobacco have been linked together for nearly 150 years. Perhaps this tragedy can get the ball rolling to remove its use from the game.