Tony Gwynn started his big league career when I was five years old, going on six. My dad's name is Tony and, as a little kid, I remember taking a weird kind of pride in that. It's obviously coincidence, but it felt very good knowing that even though I was the first generation of my family born in the United States, there was a guy like Tony Gwynn that had some kind of relation, however coincidental, to my dad and therefore to me. And not only that, this other Tony was famous (or as famous as a San Diegan could get) and was shaping up to be one of the best baseball players ever. It wasn't the kind of thing that I bragged about to friends. How would you even begin to brag about something so random? And as an adult, I know how trivial it is. But, nevertheless, there was something there.
Maybe it was summed up when I met my wife's own Uncle Tony. Uncle Tony had season tickets to the Padres he'd let me and Jess and jbox and Jonny Dub use pretty much whenever we wanted. Uncle Tony is a talker and I remember at a family gathering, when he met my family, he said to my dad with a wink, "Tony! You're a Tony? I'm a Tony. Here's a secret... All the cool guys are named Tony." And I thought to myself, Man. He's totally right.
I would watch the Padres as I grew up, and pretty much as a result of being in San Diego, that meant that I watched Tony Gwynn as I grew up. I think I was spoiled (and so were Padres fans in general) by having a guy like Tony Gwynn on the team. I mean, he was the greatest hitter of his generation, bar none. When you compare hitters to Tony Gwynn, you have to compare Ted Williams, or Honus Wagner, or Ty Cobb. Sure there might've been better overall "players", but Tony's natural hitting talents made him seem like a crazy baseball miracle.
With Tony Gwynn, to top off the amazing tools and vision and reflexes, he also demonstrated a work ethic that nobody else could match. Every Padres fan has heard the stories about Tony Gwynn hitting off the tee for hours and hours. Watching tape before after and during games. Taking notes on pitchers. Constantly trying to perfect his God given talents. You always hear about talent being wasted on people, and especially professional athletes. People who squander what they're given and try to float by. People who don't recognize what they have and try to take the easy route. People who look to get the biggest payday they can so they can cruise into retirement. Nobody could say any of that about my favorite player. With Tony, it wasn't about just being the best player on his team or the best hitter in the league. It was about being the best he could be and showing others how he got there.
After Tony Gwynn retired, I remember thinking how batting averages for the team seemed really low and I think that's when I really got to appreciating what it was that I had been seeing all of those years. Sure, there were plenty of years when other players would come close to the numbers that Gwynn put up, or even occasionally win a batting title in an off-year, but I don't think I realized how special it was until having a guy perpetually make runs for .350 batting averages just suddenly stopped happening. So many players that looked like they were more athletic or bigger or faster or cockier, but none of them could do what Tony Gwynn had been doing since I was five, going on six.
I'm going to miss Tony Gwynn, even though I never knew him and only met him a couple of times very briefly. I'll miss being able to hear him on broadcasts or seeing him at Padres functions or Aztecs games. I know I didn't fully appreciate him and his automatic hits while I was watching him play every day. He was my favorite player (as he was for just about every Padres fan), but even knowing that, I still don't think I ever fully appreciated what he was doing while I was watching him do it. I wish I knew better.
In some alternative universe, where things work out the way they're supposed to work out, Tony Gwynn goes on to live to a very ripe old age, and he badgers young hitters about keeping their bats level. In that alternative universe, he goes to some future All-Star Game in San Diego and the young hitters of the day all know him and show genuine respect and Tony smiles and laughs and gives them all notes on their respective approaches to various counts. He ends up growing very old and passes away peacefully and not after having to battle cancer or anything as unfair as that. I wish that was the universe we lived in now, but we take what we can get.
I'm happy for what we got. I'm sad for what we lost. RIP Tony.