SAN FRANCISCO – What will you think about when you remember Tony Gwynn?
Will it be his superb talent for taking a 33-inch piece of ash and turning it into his own flesh and blood? Will it be his unteachable knack for finding the blank patches between nine men? Will it be his dedication in the cage, his studious nature in the film room or his eternal curiosity to become just a little bit better at a skill he appreciated as more art form than paying gig?
Will it be leaping over the fence to rob a home run (in his leaner years) or proving that your batting average is not always directly proportional to your belt size (in his heavier years)?
I’ll think about all of those things. I’ve already thought of them today, after the news broke that he died at 54 -- far too soon for anyone, especially someone who gave of himself so often.
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But none of those fine attributes were the first thing I thought about when I remembered Tony Gwynn.
I thought of his laugh.
Not everyone is blessed with a tremendous laugh. Gwynn was. It was part chuckle, part guffaw, part gaggle of geese and tumbling stream. More than anything, it was hearty. Maybe that’s why it was so endearing to hear him laugh. It was an echo of his heart, and if you ever met the man, you knew that heart to be big and full and true.
Once I interviewed Gwynn in spring training for a feature story I was writing about baseball’s return to an unbalanced schedule. I had to be patient and wait for him, which was nothing new. Half a beat writer’s life is spent waiting for players while they are the trainer’s room, in the shower, at the lunch table or God knows where else.
I was waiting for Gwynn because he was signing autographs. For 45 minutes, he signed. It was on a back field at the Padres’ spring training complex, and there was a chain link fence between player and crowd. There was nothing keeping Gwynn from saying, “OK, thanks guys, gotta go.” Even when the crowd became a trickle, he kept signing.
And when he was done, which is to say, when the last fan had gone, he gave me all the time I needed.
“Hugghh-hugghh-hugghhh-hugghh-hugghh,” he laughed. “I’m gonna have to face Randy Johnson five times? Hugghh hugghh. Raaaandy Johnson? I’m not going to be excited about facing Raandy Johnson five times.”
Very few pitchers made Gwynn uncomfortable in the box. The Big Unit was one. Gwynn was 2 for 18 against him with five strikeouts. That doesn’t sound like many whiffs, but for Gwynn, it was. Only one pitcher managed to strike him out more than six times over his career, and that was Nolan Ryan. Gwynn still hit .302 against him, though.
Whoever said that good pitching beats good hitting never met Gwynn. He faced Greg Maddux 107 times, more often than any pitcher, and hit .415 against him. He hit .303 against Tom Glavine. Mike Scott: .318. John Smoltz: .444. Ron Darling: .441. Rick Sutcliffe: .340. Vida Blue: .400. Orel Hershiser: .321.
He had a little Ted Williams in him, with a twist. Gwynn didn’t aspire to be the best damn hitter you ever saw. He merely wanted to be the best damn hitter he could possibly be.
He forever saw a greater potential, not just himself but in others. Perhaps that’s why he treated everyone he met with respect and dignity. Fans and media members were not obligations. They were people. He did not have to cajole himself into seeing others that way. It was just the right way to be.
After retirement, he coached at San Diego State, because of course he wasn’t going to keep what he knew locked away. He took leaves of absences while getting treatment for cancer in a salivary gland, an illness that ultimately took him after a four-year fight.
He will be remembered as one of baseball’s very best people, but that description shortchanges him a bit, I think. He’s one of the very best people, period, that I’ve had the great fortune to meet.
More than a chain-link fence separates him from us now, but I can still see that ground ball flashing through the left side for a single. And I can still hear that laugh. That deep, hearty laugh.