I was scrolling through my Facebook timeline slowly the night Tony Gwynn passed away. A friend of mine who loves baseball posted simply this: “Tony Gwynn. Badass.” I never thought of Tony Gwynn that way, but you know what? Tony Gwynn really was a bad ass in every sense of the word. What a guy, what a player, and what a human being.
There was a post on Deadspin today that really personifies everything that Gwynn was as a person – a side of the story that few people get to hear – told from the perspective of a 1988 Padres bat boy.
Before one game, early in the season, I stood out in right field during batting practice, arms folded. Tony walked over. “Want to toss?” he asked. Trembling with nervousness, I said, “Yeah,” and tried to act like this was nothing to me. My first toss went about 30 feet over his head. He laughed and ran after it. Second toss, only 15 feet over his head. He jogged over to me. “How are you holding that ball?” he asked. I showed him my grip. “Well hell, that’s all wrong.” A 10-second lesson, and we were good to go. He fired a rocket to me. I fielded it cleanly and threw it back using my new grip. This time only five feet overhead. He laughed again, harder this time. I got myself under control, and we threw for 10 minutes, just us. At one point I stopped, realizing that some kids were watching. They were watching me. They were watching me playing catch with Tony Gwynn. I could read their thoughts: “That kid is so lucky.” I was. On my way back to the clubhouse, one of the kids, some poor 6-year-old totally overcome by the moment, asked me for my autograph. I signed his program. Tony watched. He laughed the whole time.
I wonder what it must be like to know that you have a destabilizing effect on people. Some people use this knowledge to their own benefit. The Padres’ catcher that season, Benito Santiago, was a renowned curmudgeon—that’s a polite way to say he was a complete and unrepentant asshole—and he relished his bad reputation. “You can tell the manager that he may suck Benito’s ass,” he told me one day when I brought around a dozen baseballs the manager wanted signed for a charity auction. “Um,” I told the manager, “Benito was busy.”
Tony went the other way—he knew he had a profound effect on us, and he embraced it. He talked to us. He asked us about classes. He asked us if we were dating anybody. (Hey, Tony, I never told you this, but that girl I told you about, the one I said I really liked but who didn’t like me back? We’ve been married for 12 years. We’ve got two kids. You were right.)
The last homestand of the season, Tony’s official Nike catalog showed up in our locker one day, with a note in his familiar handwriting. “Pick a pair,” the note said. We each happily circled a pair with the pen he provided. Later that week, before a game, the shoes appeared in our locker, along with a check for $500 for each of us. I didn’t even care about the money itself—THIS WAS A HANDWRITTEN CHECK FROM TONY GWYNN. ADDRESSED TO ME. (I think I waited five months to cash that damn check. When I did, the bank teller’s eyes got big and she looked down at the check, up at me, down at the check.) A few games after the shoes appeared, the equipment manager, our boss, told us: “You know, Tony drove down to Foot Locker himself and bought those shoes for you guys. You probably thought he had them delivered or something. But he went down there. That’s what he does.”
The guy was just a legendary figure surrounding the game of baseball in every sense of the word. It’s a damn shame that he’s gone from this earth so soon.