The Internet has not been at a shortage of tributes to Tony Gwynn today, after the news of his passing. The baseball legend earned every single word of praise that has been and will be written about him, as plenty of sportswriters and bloggers have called him one-of-a-kind and claimed that there will never be another Mr. Padre, the definitive man who played the game “the right way” on and off the field. Many will say that he was the ultimate gentleman, father and husband, and an ambassador of the game for 2+ decades, and they’ll all be correct, because that’s how so many fans and especially his peers remember Gwynn after watching him be so incredibly good at baseball for so long.
Fifteen All-Star games, eight batting titles, seven Silver Slugger awards, five Gold Gloves, a lifetime .338 batting average, 3,141 hits and every game with the same team. In 2007, Gwynn received a 97.6% vote to become one of only two first ballot Hall of Famers that year, with the other being Cal Ripken, Jr. I assume that Gwynn didn’t receive 100% of the vote because of the Steroid Era stigma, or perhaps it was because he never won a World Series. Maybe it was because he missed so many games with various injuries toward the end of his career, or maybe Jack Clark bought a vote so he could keep their feud alive. Still, including Ripken’s 98.5%, only six guys had ever received a higher percentage before Gwynn, so even the HOF voters agreed that he was one hell of a special guy.
Of the tributes I’ve read since the news of Gwynn’s passing broke this morning, I enjoyed this sweet and succinct piece from Eric Nusbaum at Vice and Erik Malinowski’s breakdown of Gwynn’s numbers at Fox Sports. Few people write as well as SB Nation’s Jon Bois does regarding anything, which is why his thoughts on Tony Gwynn the Tactician are perfectly expressed. I’m not always the best with words regarding much of anything, but Gwynn’s passing forced me to recall a chunk (pun intended) of my baseball years, and how growing up idolizing a guy like him made it easier to show up to the local ballpark each week without wanting to just give up.
I don’t remember how old I was at the time, but I spent a few weeks of one summer at the Bucky Dent Baseball Camp, where I was hoping to learn how to be a better baseball player from the so-called experts. I’m pretty sure I was 12, because I was on the older end of one age group and the younger end of the next one, so I spent the first week being way better than the 10- and 11-year olds and the following week being the absolute worst of the 13- and 14-year olds. The former was obviously a great situation for self-esteem, because those little kids looked at my Little League warning track power as godlike. The latter? It really f*cking sucked.
As you might guess, being named Ashley did not come with its advantages in playing youth sports with other teenage boys. If I made a poor throw, struck out or got caught stealing, the girl name jokes never stopped. But that was just at my hometown park. At baseball camp, every little aspect of each kid’s play was under a microscope for every minute of every drill, but those kids who weren’t as good or couldn’t keep up soon found themselves completely ignored by the coaches. Some of the 14-year olds were already physically developed and were throwing fastballs at speeds I’d never seen. One kid didn’t even know how to hold a bat, but he ran faster than the Flash and put on a diving catch display every day because that’s all he knew how to do. At best, I was good at bringing enough sunflower seeds for everyone.
To make matters worse, I was also on the verge of becoming the fat kid. I was “growing into my body” as the adults put it nicely, and that didn’t translate well into running drills. I’d played catcher and second base for most of my youth, but when you’re sorting through a group of very talented teenagers to split them off into positional assignments, there’s only one place for the kids who run the slowest and don’t possess the best arm power – right field. Most kids we faced only hit right-handed, so the chances of any batters pushing a ball to right was limited. And if a lefty came up? The coaches would almost always tell the centerfielder to move to his left and the second baseman to back up. If there had been a coaching handbook for Little League parents in South Florida in the 80s and early 90s, it would have been titled, “Put the Fat Kid in Right for the Mandatory Two Innings that He Has to Play.”
Camp had obviously become depressing for me by the second week, because I wasn’t getting any balls hit to me and I’d only ever get a few minutes of BP because the rest of the kids were already tired from their 10-minute sessions. Fortunately, one of the coaches noticed that something was wrong with me – I think me laying down in right field with my glove on my head gave it away – and he pulled me aside to find out why I’d stopped giving a crap about their expert tutelage. I told him I was fed up with being treated like the worst of the worst, and I couldn’t take being made fun of by the older kids anymore for being the fat kid with the girl’s name. He understood.
We carried two buckets of balls over to an empty field where a tee was set up, and he dumped one of them out, put one ball on the tee and then sat on the bucket. He told me we weren’t going anywhere until I’d hit every ball clean off the tee in perfect line drives. I told him that it felt more like punishment than it did practice, but that’s when he mentioned Tony Gwynn. Of course I knew who Gwynn was at that time, but we didn’t have the Internet, so I didn’t have the advantage of watching him play unless he was in a nationally televised game, playing the Chicago Cubs on WGN or the Atlanta Braves on TBS, or featured in highlights on This Week in Baseball. But from that moment on, Gwynn became one of my three favorite players (Ozzie Smith being my favorite and Ryne Sandberg second, despite my St. Louis Cardinals genes telling me to loathe him).
Tony famously joked that he had a body “built by Betty Crocker,” but you would have never known that he was packing a few extra pounds early in his career, after he’d been a two-sport star at San Diego State, and he was stealing 50+ bases in his early days for the San Diego Padres. But around this specific time, I had no clue that he was so athletic, as I’d only had the stats on the back of my Topps baseball cards to teach me that he was one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game.
That coach, whose name I regrettably forget (but I swear he and this story are real, because if I was l lying, this would be way more exciting) asked me what it was that I wanted to take away from not only my time at that camp, but baseball in general. I was honest. I told him that I didn’t want the other kids to make fun of me anymore, so he told me that I needed to think like Tony Gwynn. He said that nobody ever made fun of Gwynn because the guy busted his ass every day to become the best hitter that he could possibly be. He used a smaller bat because he thought it was the best thing for him to do, and when Ted Williams – Ted F*cking Williams!!! – told him that he should hit for more power because he was bigger, he worked even harder to become a better hitter.
I knew I’d never hit a ball like Gwynn, but we stayed at that field and I hit about 150 balls that afternoon (and ran what felt like a billion miles retrieving them) until I couldn’t lift my chubby arms. Two days later, when we finally split into two teams for a full game on the final day of camp, I was stuck in right field for three innings, and I got to bat twice in a game that I didn’t give a crap about. But I got two hits against a team full of guys who made fun of me for a week. That felt pretty awesome.
After that day, I had no problem being stuck in right field again. That was where Tony Gwynn played.