Remembering Tony Gwynn, On and Off the Field

San Diego Padres OF Tony Gwynn

It has been two years ago, to this day, that I had written the article below. Looking back on the time in between, there isn’t a day that goes by where I do not miss Mr. Padre.

Some of the things I allude to in this article – like Tony and other players use of smokeless tobacco – ring even more prophetic today; especially in light of the new litigation brought forth by the Gwynn family, aimed at the smokeless tobacco companies and their targeting of young, promising African American athletes.

At the end of the day, this piece is not intended to point fingers and determine right from wrong. Rather it is a piece that is made to celebrate the life of Tony Gwynn, his many accomplishments on and off the field, and to reflect upon how he was taken from us too soon…

On a day where San Diegans, reeling over the loss of the most beloved sports figure the town has ever seen, unite in solidarity at Petco to celebrate Mr. Padre, I find myself compelled to tell my story and how I remember Tony Gwynn.

Like everyone else, growing up I had always admired watching and hearing him play in person, on television, and over the radio. I was afforded a unique opportunity of a lifetime while in high school. Every kid in high school that is not connected to a financial pipeline has to find a job in order to earn the money they need, to do the things they desire. Excelling in academics and being involved in many extracurricular activities left me little time to find employment that could fit my busy schedule. Luckily I stumbled upon a tutoring gig that allowed me to work later in the evenings. A month or so after I began tutoring, the lady who had developed the tutoring system approached me with a special request. She wanted to know if I’d be willing to take on a student in an exclusive one-on-one session for the remainder of the year. I was being propositioned to become a private tutor.

But there were caveats. I would have to be willing to travel. I would have to commit to tutoring someone from a rival high school. Sure, there was an emotional aspect of feigned disdain – but really it meant that I’d have to drive twenty minutes and spend precious gas money traveling to and from the job. The duration of the tutoring sessions would be increased from half an hour to “making sure the job gets done”. Based on the student’s availability, I would be asked to start tutoring from 8:00-9:00 PM at least three times a week. Loosely translated, I would have to give up a ton of my personal time (of which I should mention I was in a committed relationship – like most high school dating experiences – that demanded an awful lot of time and attention), working often up until midnight, to make sure this student got the assistance they needed. On the upside, the pay would be steady and relatively handsome by high school wage standards. Ultimately, I said yes.

On the way to the student’s house for the first time, the lady in charge of the tutoring accompanied me. In addition to showing me where the student lived, she was to observe our first session to ensure that our partnership would be a proper fit. Meandering through rural backstreets, opposite of Lake Poway, we began to enter a neighborhood I had never seen or been familiar with. One thing was certain, it was an affluent neighborhood. Upon pulling up to the gate and entering a code, we drove about a hundred yards along a well manicured cobblestone driveway until we saw a veranda marking the entrance to the house. As we approached the door, I began to get extremely nervous knowing that the pressure to perform and deliver results was higher than I had ever anticipated. Suddenly the door swiftly swung open before we had a chance to knock. Startled, I jumped back. Immediately I was warmly greeted by that all too familiar country drawled chuckle and radiant smile. “Don’t be alarmed young man, come on in,” he said. The man who greeted me at the door was none other than Mr. Padre himself – Tony Gwynn.

For the semester and a half of our senior years’, I began to develop a friendship with Tony Gwynn Jr. – as I know him “Little T”. The goal of my tutelage was to raise Little T’s GPA so that he would be academically eligible for college athletics. In his mind, he was destined to become a NBA star seeing that in high school he was better on the basketball court than he was on the baseball diamond. Contrary to his vision, it was as if Alicia and Tony knew better and wanted to make sure that if Little T wasn’t drafted as high as he’d thought he would, he needed to be prepared for the alternative: developing his skills by playing in college. As it turns out, Little T was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 33rd round of the 2000 MLB draft – no where near where he’d thought he would be taken. With my help, we turned around Little T’s GPA to the point where he was comfortably eligible to participate in collegiate athletics.

Along my journey, I was able to chit chat with all of the Gwynns and get to know them in a much more familial and personal way. Tony, the vigilant and quintessential family man, was always grateful of how I was able to rise up and help Little T. Tony was the most humble and genuine person you’d ever want to know. Whether you met him at an autograph signing, or knew him on a personal level, he was the man you had a chance to interact with. No false pretenses. No primadonna superstar attitude. Just authentic Tony Gwynn. Tony was always available to chat with you as long as you were willing to begin the dialogue. Manners, like “please” and “thank you” or addressing him and others you respected as “Mrs. or Mr.”, got you a long way. In conversation one evening, waiting for Little T to shower after a practice but before our tutoring began, Tony taught me how he wrapped his bat. He used tennis/raquetball grip tape, instead of baseball grip, and only wrapped from the knob to the top of his bottom hand. He said that allowed his top hand to rotate and swing freely over the bat so he could keep his hands inside the ball and barrel it up, regardless of its location. And there I was. On the couch, in the home of my favorite player, having the greatest hitter of this generation and future Hall of Famer, tell me an 17 year old scrub of a player, how he hones his craft. In a nutshell, that was Tony. Never secretive, always willing to help, and always authentic.

In his honor and remembrance, I’d like to take time to discuss some of Tony’s attributes and how impactful they are to me as a fan and a friend.

Accountability – Born in 1982, for myself there was nothing like being a Padres fan growing up in San Diego in the late 80’s through the 90’s. There were some awful Padres teams in that span. But the one thing that you could count on, day in and day out, was Tony. His beacon of success and dependability was a staple we all came to know, understand, and on certain levels expect. Reluctantly, I didn’t realize in my childhood how lucky I was to watch this man play at the level he did, so consistently for such a long time. It wasn’t just Tony’s consistent approach to hitting that makes him synonymous with accountability. Rather I find it as a testament to his commitment to remain in San Diego for with the same team, for the same uniform, in the same town. His agent John Boggs has countlessly told the story where later in Tony’s career it seemed imminent that he was going to take an offer to bolt to Cleveland. Despite pressure from the MLB Player’s Association, Tony shrugged off the notion of taking more money and agreed to a lesser deal to remain a Padre. That’s the man he was. He stayed true to his word and that is something you seldom see with athletes nowadays.

Passion – Sure Tony may have been extremely talented as an athlete. But what no one matched was his passion for the game. His commitment in preparation for at bats, by reviewing video before and after games, revolutionized baseball. Think about it: because Tony used to watch VCR recorded videos in hotels in between games, now every single MLB team has a position (sometimes multiple) within its organization committed to video and video review. Technology aside, what often goes unmentioned is along with all the hard work and preparation was Tony’s desire to be the best. His respect and reverence for the game led to his undying passion to bring his name into consideration for “Greatest of All-Time”.

Transcendence – There are moments in sports that transcend the game. Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, Curt Schilling pitching in the world series with a bloody sock, and the Yankees playing ‘Sweet Caroline’ in respect of the Red Sox tradition during the 7th inning stretch honoring those who were victims during the Boston Marathon bombing, are all examples how sports and baseball can be larger than the game itself. Whether through progress of racial inequality, showing grit and courage in the face of adversity, or realizing that life itself can be taken for granted, in these examples sports transcend the seemingly impermeable category of being limited to the label “a game”. In even more rarer circumstances do you encounter a player that too can accomplish this feat. Tony Gwynn was that player. He represented San Diego, he represented being a Padre, he represented being a Hall of Famer, he represented hard work, he represented being a family man, but most of all he represented YOU and however you identified with him. This unique and intangible quality makes Tony not only a great baseball player, but he transcends baseball to represent a city, its character, and the pride it has in being a Padre fan.

In respecting the way that Tony was able to transcend baseball, I too feel responsible to discuss the overwhelming elephant in the room: smokeless tobacco use. Tony was not afraid to admit that his cancer was a direct result from years and years of incessant dipping. At 54 years of age, we all feel that we have lost our hero too soon. But like Jim Dietz (Tony’s old SDSU baseball coach), Matt Vasgersian (MLB Network commentator and ex Padres Channel 4 TV personality), and Stephen Strasburg (ex SDSU Aztec and current Washington Nationals pitcher who after Tony’s death has vowed to give up chewing tobacco) have noted, is that in order to remember Tony we need to consider the impact and dangers of smokeless tobacco use. Often in life, the risk is greater than the reward. Though Tony claimed that his use of chewing tobacco was to alleviate the stress and pressures of being a professional athlete we were left with the fact that it caused him to suffer immeasurably from cancer, ultimately taking his life. As a tribute to Tony, we need to consider our own personal behaviors in life to be conscious and aware of the risk versus reward relationship. Ultimately you are responsible for your decisions. But we need to consider the impacts of those decisions and how they may affect friends, co-workers, family members, and acquaintances in life. Now I’m not claiming to be an icon of morality or a figure to follow based on my lifestyle choices. Rather, I am asking that all of us take a little more effort in making decisions in life because I feel based on my relationship with Tony, it is what he would want, but no longer has the opportunity, to say.

In the end, I will always remember how special Tony was to baseball, to San Diego, to Padres fans, and most of all to me. I will miss you #19 and know that although you may have departed this Earth you will never be forgotten. Rest in peace Anthony Keith Gwynn.

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