Sunday, June 22, 2014

RIP Tony Gwynn, Mr. Padre

Shocked.  That is how I would describe my reaction to the news of Tony Gwynn passing away at the age of 54.  I knew he had battled cancer.  I knew he was on medical leave from his position as head coach of the San Diego State baseball team.  But, I never expected to hear that he was dead.  It was a sobering moment to say the least and one that I never saw coming.  I've heard of baseball players dealing with mouth cancer.  Curt Schilling dealt with it as a player and continued to pitch after having tumors removed from his mouth.  Despite knowing how devastating cancer is, I really didn't think mouth cancer was life threatening.

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. 

I was that kid at spring training.  More than once.  One of the fondest memories I have of growing up is meeting him in Yuma, Arizona during spring training.  My Dad was a pilot in the Navy with one of Gwynn's best friends and college roommates.  Before one of the spring training games, my Dad gave me a squadron baseball cap to send into the locker room for Gwynn specifically.  When the game was over we lined up with the rest of the autograph seeking fans along the player walkway.  I was instructed to shout out,  "My Dad flies with Mr. Doleman," when I saw Gwynn appear.  My family and I waited with anticipation until we saw a blue squadron cap headed toward us.  He was actually wearing the cap!  I couldn't believe it.  He must receive stuff from fans all the time, and he was wearing our cap!  As he approached, I delivered the rehearsed message and his response was, "that is so cool!"  He stopped and talked to us for a few minutes which feels like an hour when there are hundreds of other people there begging for his autograph.  He couldn't have been cooler.  He actually thanked my Dad for the hat when all along we wanted to thank him just for putting it on his head.  He didn't think of himself like that.  He loved what he did for a living, but it never changed him as a person.

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.

The final personal memory I have was driving home from a Padres game.  On the highway, we spotted the license plate Padre19 on a nondescript Mercedes (I think).  We pulled up alongside the car, and sure enough it was Gwynn.  We rolled down the window and waved like loons.  With a license plate like Padre19 he must have gotten that response all the time.  I imagine it got pretty annoying.  His reaction was to flash his famous grin and wave back.  It was awesome.  I can't tell you anything that happened during the game or a hundred others that I attended as a kid, but I'll never forget that moment.  I went to bed with a smile on my face.

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.

There was such an outpouring from fans, friends and the baseball community after Gwynn passed away, it was truly amazing to see and read.  I knew I wanted to say something in my own words, but for days after his death, I couldn't stop reading all of the wonderful words and stories others published about him.  Many of the articles were about his genius on the field and a chronicling of his mind boggling numbers.  Even as a close fan I had forgotten, or taken for granted some of his remarkable achievements.  But, those achievements were virtually hollow in comparison to lives he touched and joy he brought so many just by being himself.  Seeing his smile was to feel his joy, and it had a funny way of transferring to those in his presence, or through the TV set.  This world is a little bit worse without Tony Gwynn in it, but he will always be remembered, especially in San Diego, and especially by me.  Thank you, Mr. Gwynn.

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.

Whatever else comes of his death, I hope his family finds peace soon.  I can't imagine what his wife and children are going through right now, and it must seem completely unfair to lose him this early.  For the rest of us, it's another opportunity to reflect on exactly what is important in life.  An opportunity to take a step back from our daily routines and remember the fragility of life and focus on the legacy we are leaving.  You can be the highest achieving employee at your job, but what lives on is the love you give and receive.  Tony Gwynn was able to pack ten lifetimes full of love into his short 54 years, and I hope everyone that is truly close to him can find solace in that fact.

5 comments:

  1. It's not easy to capture the essence of such a significant life and loss, but you did so beautifully. It warms my heart to know that his legacy of love lives on through those who knew him. In that way, part of him lives on forever.

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  2. Beautiful article. On 26 June over 22,000 of Tony's "friends" filed into Petco for a public memorial. They listened to many baseball greats who flew in for the event. One former teammate, Damian Jackson spoke of what a wonderful father Tony was to his kids. He went on to say,"since I never had a dad, Tony would have been a great one". I believe Tony filled that void in DJ's life. The entire city is still in mourning. Tony was the best of San Diego.

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  3. What a beautiful memorial and wonderful memories. Your stories felt like they were yesterday. Thank you for making my day and giving us all food for thought. Keep up the great work.

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  4. Beautifully written, Ryan. Outstanding emphasis on Gwynn the person, his kind heart and the effect he had on his fans. RIP, Mr. San Diego.

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