Tony Gwynn has passed away. Even as I type those words I do not believe them to be true. Even as I read the countless tributes by various sports writers, watch Keith Olberman’s tribute on television, and listen to people recant their fondest memories of Mr. Padre; I am in denial. It doesn’t seem possible for the world to be robbed of this giant among men, that we all must continue on without that gleaming smile and the contagious cackle that accompanied it, but that’s the reality we now face. Tony Gwynn is gone and the world is a lesser place because of it.
Even some 36 hours after learning of his passing, I am overcome with a profound sadness over the loss Mr. Padre. I can scarcely mention his name without getting choked up and am not yet able to listen to fans as they recant their fondest memories of a fallen idol. Though I didn’t know Tony personally, he had been a part of my life in one way or another for as long as I can remember, and for that I loved him dearly.
From what I did know of Tony, I have to assume he would have been embarrassed by the attention he is getting. Never one to seek out the spotlight, I don’t think Tony ever fully understood why people loved him the way they did which, of course, only made us love him more. He probably didn’t even consider himself a superstar athlete.
Then again, Tony was more than an athlete, more than some mythical, unapproachable figure. He was different. Tony was different because he understood what so many athletes fail to grasp – he was nothing without us. I would go so far as to say he embodied what everyone should aspire to be. He was both larger than life and absurdly humble, both immensely talented and a tireless worker, both generous and intensely loyal. His greatness afield was surpassed only by his greatness as a man, the size of his frame only by the size of his heart.
Part of what made Tony Gwynn so special was his disarming, unassuming personality. Here he was, a bigger-than-life sports icon, and he had an uncanny knack for making anyone with whom he came into contact feel as though they were family. And it was 100% sincere, he wasn’t mugging for cameras or putting on a show for reporters, he knew how important his fans were and he always made sure they knew, too. That is truly special.
I’ve heard people praise his ability to hit a baseball. I’ve heard them sing his praises as an approachable, generous man of the fans. What I haven’t heard is anyone credit Tony, who for years was the only reason to go to the ballpark, for keeping baseball in San Diego. In fact, not only was Tony pretty much single-handedly responsible from keeping the Padres from being moved or contracted, his 3,141 hits are the foundation upon which Petco Park was built. Tony Gwynn was San Diego baseball. More than that, he was San Diego.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I wept when I heard the news. Does it seem odd that a grown man with a family of his own would become so emotional over the passing of a man with whom he had no discernible relationship? It did to me. In fact, it surprised me so much that I reflected on my tears so I could make sense of them. Then it hit me; Tony was family.
That may seem contrived, but it’s true. Think about it; Tony had been part of my life since I was five years old. Only my immediate family has been with me for that long. Every year for twenty years he showed up in March and was a constant in my life until September. Heck, he even stuck around through October a couple of times. I checked the box scores every morning, secretly listened to his games in bed at night, and wore his #19 throughout little league. I even taught myself to hit left-handed as a teenager so I could mimic his swing. He was always with me. And now he’s gone.
And so it is, on June 17th, 2014, that I sit here, writing this farewell to my favorite athlete of all time. Tony Gwynn is gone, taken from us far too soon, and to be perfectly honest, I feel like a chunk of my childhood was taken with him. Mr. Padre was the reason I became a baseball fan, the reason I am a Padres fan, and, believe it or not, I will always be thankful for that.
The good news is Tony isn’t in pain anymore. The cancer is gone, the radiation is no longer poisoning his body, and for the first time in four years, he’s Tony Gwynn again. His strength restored, I have no doubt that, hitting from the two-hole in a sandlot game somewhere in the heavens; Tony just laced a double into the left center gap – and if I know Tony he started laughing it up with the second baseman the second his foot hit the bag.
Thank you Tony, we love you and miss you.