Goodbye, T

The day Tony Gwynn passed away, I spent about 10 hours going through all the reaction from around the baseball world, writing a pair of articles. Like many others in my line of work, this was a personal blow, and stories I never wanted to write. But we all honored his ethic by getting to work, and there were many, many touching tributes to the man and the player.

This is my opportunity to remember T — I’m sure it’s a little long-winded, perhaps an appropriate honor for one of the all-time great chatterboxes. I don’t pretend to know him deeper than I did, but I think my experiences portray how deeply he affected me, like so many others.

19 OF

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The first time Tony Gwynn brought me to tears, I was in the right-field bleachers at the Murph. It was a beautiful weekday afternoon game — they used to call them Businessman’s Specials, that’s how long ago it was — and maybe I was a sentimental old fool before my time, in my early 20s then. But everybody in the ballpark wanted No. 19 to get his fifth hit of the day. Of course, I did too.

And, of course, he did it. It was one of those beautiful images in life that are so simple, they last with you forever — a sweet single on a bright, sunny day. I’m cheering and teary-eyed at the same time, not really caring if anybody sees it.

Within a few years, I’d have the good fortune of covering the Padres on a daily basis for the first year of a decade-plus of following the team, and their star player. That ride went to the playoffs, and to the World Series, and to a 3,000th hit in Montreal — all of it with Gwynn as the protagonist, including hours and hours spent talking and listening to the most accomplished yet most down-to-earth person I’ve ever met.

I’m sure there were some misty-eyed moments along the way, but the next time Tony Gwynn really brought me to tears was Monday, when I’d heard he’d passed away at age 54.

It was a sad day, as so very many have noted. The outpouring of tributes from around the country have been moving, a true reflection of what I already knew: Covering Tony Gwynn for as long as I did was the best thing I could ever ask for as a sportswriter. As one of the many members of the media who literally loved the man and wouldn’t hesitate to say so without fear of being scolded for their objectivity, it’s as though a life is passing before my eyes — the part of my life that was so enhanced by his.

Memories going through my head with a 5.5 hole in my heart:

* The first time I remember asking Gwynn a question, though I’m sure I’d done it a few times in the clubhouse the previous season as a backup, it was my first press conference as the Padres beat writer for the Blade-Citizen, a surburban daily in North County. Gwynn had just signed another contract extension, and the presser was held in the Stadium Club at the Murph during the offseason. Outside, the field was a complete mess, being set up for a Supercross event that weekend, and looked more like a war zone than a ballfield. The Q&A was pretty much wrapped up and he was about to leave the podium. I said, “Tony?” He rolled his eyes a bit — any reporter who dealt with him knows that look, it was precious — and swung back to the podium. “How do you think right field looks out there right now?” He smiled, broke out into a little laugh, and gave a good answer. Can’t remember what it was, to be honest. Doesn’t really matter. He was just being a good guy to a green kid, and sharing a sense of humor. And obviously that kid never forgot it.

* Some of my first lessons in sportswriting were watching Gwynn interact with the veteran writers on the beat — Barry Bloom, Chris DeLuca, Kevin Kernan and Bob Nightengale were the other beat writers at the time, a better group I couldn’t have asked for as a rookie. It was obvious (duh) he was the go-to guy, but there was always a good amount of banter, stuff we weren’t writing down, stuff that made us feel like it was a friendly working relationship, which it was. I miss those days. They’re gone. Too many microphones and cameras around. (Or just that single, solitary one attached to someone wanting to make a name for him/herself that makes it impossible, actually.)

What I learned very early on: Nobody liked to hold court like Tony, and perhaps no one in modern baseball history held court more often — ask any of the national writers or visiting writers who have piled up the tributes the last few days. They were there every single time, the first game of a series. And he always, always delivered.

* Tony was not a soap-box leader, a pound-his-chest motivator. Every young player knew where his locker was, and they were always invited. He would give players — teammates and opposition alike — his time, his respect, his insights. I remember in Yuma having an extended interview with Tony, and players kept coming over from the other clubhouse to pay their respects, sort of interrupting but sort of telling a story unto itself. He really was a bit of a guru of sorts. People gravitated to him that way, and he liked it.

* Early on, I asked a postgame question to Jerald Clark, who had gone 4-for-5 — the one non-hit being the final out of the game. Me: “Jerald, looked like that last one broke your bat.” Jerald, not happy after making the last out: “Broke my bat? I don’t know if it broke my bat? Go ask the equipment manager if it broke my bat!” Me: “Blah, blah, duh, um, OK.” Pregame the next day, Gwynn pulled me aside and kind of tutored me on how to perhaps better deal with situations like that — although it was hard for him to do it between busting up at the thought of the young player popping his top and this big galoot standing there like a dummy. Don’t think I’ve asked about a broken bat since then, but that’s not what lingers. It was that Tony Gwynn saw it as a teachable moment, really for both of us. And it made him laugh.

* Ah, the laugh. Some big ones people have, you know they’re kind of manufactured, or at least amplified. This was a laugh that came from somewhere deep in his soul, as natural as his historic stroke. It broke up the room. It broke the ice. It’s a laugh practically any sports fan in or from San Diego knows by heart. You’ve got to love Internet video — at least you can still hear it.

* When I first started, I wasn’t tucking in my polo shirt. For whatever reason, he made it a mission, rode me on it. Guess what? I started tucking in my polo shirt. I did.

* I tried a clever angle on a Gwynn story one Spring Training. We’d talked about how he liked playing video games, so I said I had my … Super NES, I think, with me, so let’s play a video game and talk about it. I knew he was notoriously boring on the road, a family man not into the nightlife, and we’d discussed how video games were one of his pastimes away from home. It was a fun little exercise, but of course the story really should have been about how he video-ed games, not video games. I had a little sider about his video analysis work, a story that had been done before, but really he was such a pioneer in that arena that it’s a story I wish had been done more thoroughly at the time. Ah well, it was fun to strike out Tony Gwynn, anyway.

* T loved, loved, loved being an All-Star. While the ’92 game in San Diego had to be up there, there was also the thrill of scoring the winning run in ’94 (watching on TV, I remember being afraid I’d have an injury story to cover, his knees had been so bad), and then the ultimate honor of being by Ted Williams’ side in 1999. Gwynn was an All-Star among All-Stars. He had a particularly special relationship with Barry Bonds, and they’d have a bull session by the batting cage every time Bonds came into town. Padres observers must recall how Bonds would stand about 200 feet from home plate, trying to take away Gwynn’s vintage sure-thing single, daring him to hit it over his head. And that’s just one guy — he was like a maitre’d welcoming regular diners when friends on the other team came around, and they were usually the biggest stars on that team. No player since has that kind of universal appeal with his peers. It’s just not that way anymore.

* Tony had such an engaging way of speaking — “you go out and do what you do” and “grind it out” and the occasional “I suck.” Covering him with so many writers over the years, we had a standard line I don’t think he ever said, at least not to me: “I ain’t talkin’, but I’ll tell you this…” He was the quintessential chatterbox. Sometimes it only took one question — sometimes none — and you’d fill your notebook.

* Standing in the parking lot of the Mt. Woodson Golf Club the day the players went on strike, Gwynn talked to the media before going in for a previously planned club event. He was disappointed, but he was on board. Guess nobody really thought he’d be stuck at .394 forever. But he was. What a shame.

* I remember it as Nine Grains of Pain. Some have said it was seven. Whatever the number, that’s what he called the bat he used that entire ’94 season, a piece of lumber with nice even, wide grains on it that just refused to break — until, what, his first at-bat of the next season? He had these small hands, and he used a small bat — used to call ‘em pea-shooters. There is some dispute about how many grains it was, and he’s been quoted saying different things. I remember it as nine. I remember seeing it, all beat up from hitting all those balls.

* He called me Schlegs. He called my wife Mrs. Schlegs. It’s not like we hung out — these were passing conversations, but he always went out of his way to be nice. He was very sweet once for two minutes to my mom, who then was a friend for life and every chance she could before she passed away would say, “Say hi to Tony for me.” And every once in a while I would, and he’d laugh and say to say hi back.

* Listen, this guy wasn’t perfect, and his act, which wasn’t an act in any way, wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, including the macho lunkheads who made up some of the ranks of his peers. And it was a hard landing at the end of his playing career — not that he’s the first to fade away rather than walk away. But Tony Gwynn always tried to be nice, always tried to make people feel like he was just another guy, to relax and say hi. And he always, always took pride in being a gifted athlete, a person with a wonderful opportunity in life.

* Once, I’m walking by, minding my own business, and he says, “Whatyouknowgood, Schlegs?” I’m like, “What?” He said, “What you know good?” I’m like, “What?” Exasperated, he says, “What. Do. You. Know. Good? What’s up? What’s going on?” Gwynn, a pretty square guy to be honest, was being cool, and I was not catching on in the least, pretty much ruining the moment. Me: “Oh, nothing much, I guess.” Idiot.

* Sure, maybe it was the weight, maybe it was just so much use, maybe it was all of the above, but TGwynn played on some really bad knees for a very long time. After he’d get a knee drained, he’d describe it in gory detail, if you wanted to listen. The cc’s, the chunks, etc. By the end, dude was bone on bone. But he did everything he could to keep playing — sure, it affected his defense, which he had self-made into Gold Glove-worthy early in his career. But the swing, man, I don’t think the swing really ever went away. Maybe that’s my dreamy memory.

* Dip. Dang, his only vice, as far as I ever knew. He used to talk about trying to quit, but like every cigarette smoker I’ve ever known, it was ingrained into his day — in the morning, after a meal, etc. I never knew him to drink or smoke. He ate, he kept horrible hours like every other ballplayer. But, man, that one vice, seems like it really got him. I wonder whether he really would have preached about it had he survived it longer. He was always a free-will, you-do-what-you-do kind of guy, in my eyes.

* I had my share of scoops over the years, especially as I became more entrenched on the beat, but none bigger than when Randy Smith resigned as GM of the Padres. Most everyone else thought he was staying, but I broke that he was leaving, and it was true. The day the news broke, reporters obviously gathered around Gwynn’s locker for reaction — this was when his famous line that the Padres wanted a “bobo” for a GM came out. With the scrum going on, T starts piping up about how usually the big paper gets the scoops and how I did it this time and what’s up with that? I don’t think he meant it personally against anyone. He was just giving me credit, I suppose. It was nice in a way, uncomfortable in another, and ultimately I felt like it was his way of patting me on the back, which I obviously remember to this day.

* After covering the team for seven years at the newspaper, I went to work for the club as Director of Publications and Internet. I was fortunate to have many behind-the-scenes experiences with Tony — nothing earth-shattering, just the human moments of being in the traveling party, or there in the clubhouse every day. This man came to work every day, ready to work every day — and long after his body had all but broken down, athletically. But there was one episode in particular . . .

* This incident was bizarre, unexpected, telling on a number of levels and later became public knowledge. I was on the road for the opener in Cincinnati, had to be 1998, and as I was exiting the clubhouse to head back to the hotel, so was Tony. “Hang on, we’ll split a cab,” he says. Well, sure. Of course, he’s carrying bags in each arm, some shopping bags and a bag of video stuff, a full load. So when we get into the cab in the tunnel underneath Riverfront Stadium, T tells the cabbie to head around the back of the hotel, not the front.

A ton of autograph seekers had been outside the entrance to the hotel since our arrival (pretty common for Major League hotels), so he knew they’d be there once we arrived. Alicia was waiting for him in the hotel, he had his stuff, he needed to get inside — an autograph session wasn’t going to happen this time. I got it, made sense to me, and the cabbie knew the score, for sure. Keep in mind, this is a player I’d seen sign literally thousands of autographs over the years, always interacting. Pretty much his only requirement was that you’re polite, say thank you and he’d say you’re welcome — and he’d call people, especially kids, on it if they weren’t. And that’s on top of the thousands he’d sign a box at a time for Community Relations or somebody’s auction, or someone’s kid.

As we get to the rear entrance to the hotel and get out of cab, I can see Alicia through a window, waiting, talking with someone. And, sure enough, as Tony’s gathering his bags and bags, here comes a group of about 10-12 autograph hounds around the corner of the hotel, all running and some literally waving bats — seriously, if you didn’t know better, you’d have thought it was a mob coming to bash our heads in. Well, we start going up the stairs to this back entrance so he can get inside. I mean, it wasn’t some secret entrance or anything, just a glass door on the opposite side of the hotel’s lobby entrance.

So, Tony’s got bags in both hands, and one of the members of the group says, “Tony, sign my bat?” Gwynn: “I’ve got my hands full, my wife’s waiting for me, I’ll get you at the park tomorrow.” Guy: “Yeah, that’s what you said before.” Gwynn: “Well, try tomorrow, I’ve got to go.” Guy: “Yeah, you’re just a fat, overpaid jerk.” Well, anybody who knows Gwynn knows that didn’t sit well. Mr. Padre was angry in a way I’d never seen him before, and some heated words ensued between the two — it was profane, and it became racial. I wouldn’t try to tell you what was said, because it wouldn’t possibly be accurate all these years later. Plus, they were both yelling at the same time.

Now, I’m a pretty large man, and I was standing between them, thinking it’s a good thing I’m a pretty large man standing between them and, as I recall, saying something to the effect of, “OK, enough, let’s go, Tony” and at least providing a moving screen for the ex-point guard. We went inside, he met up with Alicia, whose concerned look was followed by them both shaking their heads and heading upstairs.

You know, I don’t think we ever really talked about it again.

Full disclosure, I’m not an autograph person, for a number of reasons. But I understand the thrill an autograph, especially one with that perfect “T” and the big “G” on it that I’d seen so very many times, can bring to a fan. I get that. It’s just not my thing.

But this exposed to me the ugliest side of that hobby, which of course is more of a side job for some — I’m sure including that guy at the back of the hotel. I mean, this wasn’t some Tony Gwynn fan finally getting to meet his idol. This was somebody treating a man like an object, and the man’s signature as a rightful possession, something he deserved, something he was entitled to no matter what the situation. For it to become so ugly so fast was stunning to me. But it obviously wasn’t the first or only time for Tony. For it to be Gwynn in the middle of something like that? Crazy to me. But this person was way off base, rude and out of line. And, well, Tony was probably a lot less stunned than me.

There’s many a time I’ve thought about that and considered everyone lucky that it was me and not Alicia who was standing there. She would have kicked the guy’s ass.

* Full disclosure, too: When I worked for the club and didn’t feel a conflict, I did have two things signed by Tony that I still have. One is the poster-sized repro of the Road to 3,000 edition of Padres Magazine, seen here. The other, I didn’t request from him, or from the great baseball man who gave it to me — Doc Mattei, the longtime traveling secretary of the Padres and a classic in his own right. Out of the blue, he hands me a ball signed by Tony Gwynn and Garth Brooks. Doc, too funny. Oh, and Trevor Hoffman gave me a signed Padres Magazine cover. That’s pretty much my autograph collection.

Gwynn cover

One-third of my autograph collection.

* The Road to 3,000: Sadly, it was extremely difficult, seemingly endless and couldn’t have been completed in a more isolated environment, apologies to the 13,540 in attendance at Olympic Stadium who were on hand, honoring the achievement. While I was doing magazine special sections and web-site work on it, he and Alicia couldn’t have been more accommodating. We ringed the stadium with banner images of the players who had reached 3,000 hits before him, eventually unveiling Mr. Padre. Doing that project, it really sank in the kind of company he was joining, and how much this was the milestone that made so much sense being part of his legacy. These were not his finest hours of playing at his highest level, but it was an opportunity for the club and the fans to shower him with the appreciation he so richly deserved. Only wish the 3,000th could have been at home, or at least Dodger Stadium or something. But maybe that fits the script, too.

* It was in 2001, his final season, that I really last had the opportunity to spend time with Tony, much to my regret. In one of the first of these kinds of projects we’ve had at MLB.com over the years, we did a regular diary of his thoughts as he went through his final season, which was our site’s first season. I’d interview him in person when I could, sometimes get him on the phone now that I was up in the Bay Area, or sometimes my colleague John Sandoval would get him. (I know that had to be a thrill for John, a lifelong Padres/Gwynn fan.) It was a weird year that way for me, and as I moved my life north it was one way San Diego and my experiences there slipped away. And my opportunity to talk to Tony Gwynn on an almost daily basis during the baseball season was fading away with it.

The hardest part for me right now is that the story pretty much ends there. Unlike many of my colleagues with whom I covered the Padres and baseball and Gwynn for so long, I didn’t get to cover the next part of his life, his days at San Diego State, or as a broadcaster. We saw each other in passing a few times, is all. I had obligations, or at least I felt I did, that kept me from going to Cooperstown, and to this day it’s a regret that I didn’t just drop everything and go. And the only reason it’s a regret is that I should have honored Tony. But I guess now that I think about it, I was pretty teary-eyed watching his speech.

Tony probably had no idea he’d had this much of an impact on my life. My heart goes out to Alicia, Anisha and Anthony — sorry, Tony Jr., as he prefers now, not “Ant” like I heard about so often years ago. Can’t blame him there, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a prouder Junior than this guy. The baseball world feels for him. I know from experience what it’s like for them, losing a part of themselves, important people in their lives.

But what a gift to literally millions of lives this man was, certainly one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received in mine.

Goodbye, T. And thank you.

 

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