The news we all received this week about Tony’s passing hit me like a ton of bricks. My heart truly goes out to his family. Reading all of the different stories and tributes inspired me to share my own. This isn’t my only TG story, but it is by far my favorite. It’s going to take a while, so please bear with me.
First, a little background info. I grew up in a small town on the east coast of Florida. I hated baseball. Seriously. It was so damn boring. I couldn’t stand watching and I really sucked at playing. The closest team to watch was the Dodgers when they used to have ST in Vero Beach. I saw a ton of those games growing up and for the month or so that they were in town the Dodgers never drew me in. It’s worth mentioning that the Marlins and Rays did not exist at this time, and the closest MLB team was in Atlanta. Baseball was an afterthought for me, but not for my best friend.
I met Jeff playing soccer when I was 11 years old. We played on every team together all the way through high school. He played baseball when he was younger, but like me he was better at soccer so that’s where we concentrated our efforts once we got old enough to be competitive. Jeff had (and still has) this framed Tony Gwynn rookie card hanging on his wall. Looking back, there was a weird mystique about it. I had no idea who this guy was, and the first time I asked about the card Jeff just went off about how badass TG was. Honestly, I didn’t really care. I didn’t like baseball.
Then, some time goes by…After high school I moved to San Diego to attend UCSD in the Fall of 1999. My first year (and all of college, for that matter) was amazing largely in part to joining a fraternity. For those of you who attended UCSD, you will understand why I had to go Greek to get the "college experience." One of the rush events was a (*please read in Otter voice from Animal House) ‘Meet the ‘Bros’ event at a Padres game. We tailgated for 2 hours at the Q with a keg and crapload of 25¢ cheeseburgers from McDonald’s. I ate and drank my fill. Then it was time for the game. I knew about the Padres because they had just been to the World Series and it made the news, but truthfully at the time I couldn’t name a single player…until the bottom of the 1st when they announced No. 19. The. Crowd. Went. Fucking. Nuts.
Hey I know that guy! I can’t remember the date, who won, or even whether Tony got a hit. It didn’t matter. I had so much fun it was unreal. I had never experienced anything like that before. I had been to baseball games, sure. But for some reason this one was different. I can’t explain it. That night when Tony’s first AB was announced and the crowd cheered, it was like someone flipped a switch. I was a now Gwynn fan. I was a now Padre fan. For the next few years I caught dozens of Pads games and can say I was lucky enough to watch this guy hit. The only thing that resonates more than Hells Bells in my memory is the noise of the crowd when 19 walked up to the plate. Chills.
Then, some time goes by…A couple of years later I got a job selling funnel cakes at Cox Arena, mostly during Aztec basketball games. One time, as we started setting up the food tent, I saw Tony walk by. I shouted "Hey Tony!" and waived. I am pretty sure my voice cracked. Tony smiled, waived back, and said hey.
Turns out it was TG’s SDSU bobblehead night. Yeah, I was getting one of those for sure. It was still an hour or two before the game, so after we set up the tent I walked over to Tony’s table to say hi. He was sitting there with a bunch of bobbleheads waiting to pass them out. I introduced myself and asked if he would sign an autograph. Tony said he wasn’t there to sign, just to hand out the bobbleheads. He was super nice and I said ok no problem, and thanked him anyway. I started walking away and he called after me, "Hey kid, there’s nobody here yet. What do you want me to sign?" I lit up and said hold on as I ran back to the truck. The only thing I could find was a manila folder. I ran back to Tony with the folder and asked him to sign to my buddy Jeff because he was Tony’s biggest fan. Tony bellowed laughter and said "Oh yeah what about you?" I don’t think he was very used to anyone telling him that someone else was his biggest fan. I laughed and said of course I was a huge fan too, but my friend lives in Florida and had never seen him play live. Tony chuckled and smiled, said okay and signed. Before Tony handed it to me he made me promise to go to an Aztec baseball game. I did, and I did. I mailed Jeff the bobblehead along with the folder signed, "To Jeff, Best Wishes, Tony Gwynn." Jeff called me once he got the package and was stoked.
Then, some time goes by…A year or so later I totaled my car. Without a car I couldn’t get to class and my grades were falling. If I was going to graduate, I decided I first had to move home to work and save some money for tuition and a car. It was hard for me to go back home to live with my mother. It felt like defeat. So instead I moved in with Jeff where he hooked me up with a job and a couch. He was at Florida State (GO ‘NOLES!!!!) living with his brother and girlfriend at the time. Tallahassee is a freaking awesome town by the way. When I arrived I saw the TG bobblehead atop the fridge. I didn’t see the folder so I asked where it was. Jeff had no idea what I was talking about. I explained the story and that Tony wrote him a note. Apparently, Jeff opened the box, saw the bobblehead, and assumed that was it. He had thrown away the box along with the folder. Lame. In praise of that brilliant specimen of observational technique, for the last 10+ years I have wasted no opportunity to give Jeff shit every chance I get.
Then, some time goes by…A couple years ago I asked and Jeff agreed to be the best man in my wedding. I had no idea that guys were supposed to do this kind of thing, but my future wife told me I had to get him a best man gift. With the wedding quickly approaching, I had no clue what I was going to get. One weekend I was sitting around watching the morning news and an El Cajon Ford commercial came on saying Tony was signing that day. Problem solved. I grabbed a baseball (I have a bunch ready for just such an occasion, don’t ask) and hauled ass to East County. I waited in line for almost 2 hours until it was my turn.
I introduced myself and asked Tony to please sign the baseball with the inscription, "To Jeff, the Best Man." The perfect gift, right? I couldn’t resist, so before Tony could grab his blue bic I started my story about how I had met him years earlier at the SDSU bobblehead night and he signed that manila folder for my friend. He started chuckling in that high-pitched guttural affable laugh we all loved. I know I am not the first to say it, but that’s what I think I am going to miss most about Tony. He said, "Aaahh I remember that. So did you go see the Aztecs?" I laughed and said of course as he started writing.
Anyways, I told him that Jeff had accidentally thrown the folder away and that this baseball was for the same guy. Tony paused and said, "Wait, what did you want on the ball?" I told him again and Tony gave me a funny look, laughed, and continued writing. He handed me the ball and I shook his hand, I said thank you, and told him this really meant a lot to me. He said you’re welcome, and I walked away with a monster smile on my face.
On my way out I looked at the ball. Tony had written, "To Jeff,
the Best Wishes, The Best Man. Tony Gwynn." I think Tony was just in the zone. I was talking his ear off and he had already been signing for over an hour. He had probably been writing "Best Wishes" so many times that muscle memory guided him that way. Whatever. I loved it. I thought it was funny. I thought it was charming. It made the ball unique. It gave it character. It made my best man’s gift even better. This baseball had a story. This baseball had personality. It gave my best friend and best man a personalized baseball signed by the one and only Tony Gwynn. And that baseball will always carry with it that laugh. That fucking awesome laugh.
I gave the baseball to Jeff at my rehearsal dinner. He loved it. We re-hashed the manila folder story and shared a laugh. Tony meant a lot to Jeff. We have been texting back and forth a lot about Tony this past week. And even though it didn’t start out that way, Tony grew to mean a lot to me as well. After all, Tony Gwynn is basically the whole reason I like baseball. Thank you, Tony.