Tuesday, June 17, 2014

My tribute to Tony Gwynn

I usually try to make my blog lighthearted (or on rare occasions, informative). But every so often someone will pass away who I had great affection for and I will write about that. Usually I like those tributes to be few and far between. This is the first time I’ve done two back-to-back. Casey Kasem yesterday and Tony Gwynn today. I hope you’ll indulge me, but I just couldn’t let their passings pass.

I knew Tony Gwynn well. We were together for three years when I broadcast for the San Diego Padres and he was at the height of his career. You’ll be hearing and reading many tributes to TGwynn (as we called him) and every nice thing they say is true. What I want to do is share some personal recollections, show you some day-to-day examples of what a prince this man was.

One time we were playing the Giants in old Candlestick Park. My two kids, Matt & Annie, were with me at the park that day. It’s several hours before the game, me and my kids are sitting in the dugout and Tony saunters by. My son asks if he could have his autograph. Tony said sure. (Tony always said sure.) Matt looked around for a ball. There were a few old batting practice balls lying around so he picked up one of those. Tony said, “That’s not what you want. Wait here.” The Padres clubhouse was way down the rightfield line, past the foul pole. Tony ran all the way to the clubhouse and back with two brand new baseballs to sign for my kids.

For Matt's bar mitzvah Tony gave him one of his bats.  Way cooler than a Savings Bond.  
We all know Tony was a spectacular hiter. Eight-time batting champ. Hall of Famer.   But he never took anything for granted. When we were on the road he would bring a portable VHS player, hook it up to his TV in the room, set the timer for the game, and come back and study his at bats.

And he devoted the same effort to his fielding. We were in Pittsburgh once at old Three-Rivers Stadium. It was late September, the end of the season. The Padres had long since been eliminated (probably in August), as were the Pirates (July). This was a weekend series of utterly meaningless games. I got out to the park very early on Friday to begin my preparations for the series. The field was completely empty except for Tony in rightfield, throwing the ball off various parts of the wall to refamiliarize himself with how to play the carom in this particular outfield.

Tony was a great laugher, but the biggest laugh I ever got from him was just after we both were almost killed. He and I shared a cab to Shea Stadium in New York one afternoon. Somewhere in the streets of Queens the cabbie lost control and the cab did a full 360 spin before coming safely to a stop. Once we caught our breath I said to Tony, “You realize that if anything had happened the headline in all the papers and on all the news shows would be ‘Tony Gwynn and passenger killed in car accident.’ My life would be reduced to ‘passenger.’ “ Tony called me ‘passenger’ for the next two weeks.

He answered every question, he spoke to everyone who approached him, he was loyal to the city of San Diego even though he received larger offers from other teams – I can’t think of one bad thing he ever did.

Except one.

He used chewing tobacco. And it killed him at the way too tender age of 54.

One question I'm often asked is “Of all the baseball players that you’ve known, who’s your favorite?” My answer is always, “Tony Gwynn.” He’s my ultimate MVP – with the M standing for Mensch.

I was honored to be his passenger.

41 comments:

Gene P. said...

Nice tribute.

Mike Barer said...

Well done.

Michael said...

Ken, as a Mets fan, I always knew what a great player Tony was, but had no idea what type of person he was. Thank you for sharing these stories.

Tracy said...

I'm sure you're right, that there will be many tributes to Tony Gwynn, but this is the one everyone should read. Genuine and touching, your thoughts on Tony made me feel the loss of someone I've never met.

VP81955 said...

When I lived in Philadelphia in the early '90s, I met one of the Phillies ballgirls at some event and asked who her favorite visiting player was. She instantaneously answered, "Tony Gwynn"...and even at that time I was not surprised, given his reputation in the baseball community. He will be missed -- a great player, an even greater person.

Michael said...

The Vin did, as one would expect, a lovely tribute last night, and yours ranks with his. He talked about Tony Gwynn's laughter, too.

I will always cherish the memory of watching an interview with TGwynn and TBallgame, as in Ted Williams. They were great friends, but Mr. Ballgame was both loud (being hard of hearing since World War II) and blunt. He kept saying that Gwynn should hit more homers and Gwynn kept saying he was a line drive hitter. Then Ted started explaining that the problem was that "you're too FAT" and can't swing around the gut to hit the ball hard enough, and Gwynn was hysterically laughing the whole time.

Doug Harvey, the greatest umpire I've ever seen, wound up with cancer from his tobacco chewing and has spent about 15 years preaching on its evils. I hope this will emphasize how evil it is.

Kathleen said...

Lovely tribute, Ken. Thank you.

Mr. Hollywood said...

Once again the term "Only the good die young" is relevant here.
I wish some of the younger "diva" players would take note of Tony Gwynn, both the PLAYER and the MAN.
An exemplary human being.
He may be gone in body, but his spirit will live on as long as there is a baseball diamond, bats and balls.
Thanks for the memories ... and that laugh!

Katherine @ Grass Stains said...

Beautiful tribute, and so sad that he's gone far too soon.

DwWashburn said...

Even though I'm a die hard Cardinal fan, Tony was my favorite player during his career. Here is a man who could have written his own ticket, made lots more money, and probably could have been in more World Series if he had accepted contracts from contenders, but he chose love of baseball over love of money or love of increased fame.

I recall when Tony was chasing hit 3,000. Naturally he would have rather gotten the hit in front of his home town fans, but that was not to be. The Padres had a three game series in St Louis where Tony got a standing ovation nearly every time he came to the plate. He told the press if he couldn't get number 3,000 in San Diego, then he sure hoped he could get it at Busch Stadium. Sadly he left St. Louis with 2,999 hits and had to settle for 3,000 to be made in front of 40,000 empty seats in Montreal.

Anonymous said...

It is too bad that you had to write two of these back to back, but you always do a great job, and I'll bet you get another reader or two. These give you an opportunity to show how good your blog is. Your obits are always some of my favorite posts. I started reading after Harry Morgan died and I found your post through Google, and someone else will now.

Roger Owen Green said...

Damn you, Levine, you made me cry.

Doug said...

Just when I'd stopped crying.

Igor said...

Ken, as I read this paragraph -

"We all know Tony was a spectacular hiter. Eight-time batting champ. Hall of Famer. But he never took anything for granted. When we were on the road he would bring a portable VHS player, hook it up to his TV in the room..."

I thought you were then going to tell us he'd watch game tapes that he'd asked some employee of the team to make for him.

And then I read -

"...set the timer for the game, and come back and study his at bats."

He recorded the games himself...?

Obviously there's a lot of other good and nice things in your post today. Signing new balls, the Bar Mitzvah bat. But setting things up in his hotel room to record the games himself... Somehow that small moment, that he'd do that, resonates with me about his dedication.

Thanks, Ken.

BobinVT said...

I saw the headline on Yahoo yesterday that Tony had died. My first reaction was that I almost felt sick to my stomach. I didn't even know that he was sick. The tributes to his baseball career and his life as a man have been universally heartfelt. I can't add anything since I'm just a baseball fan with no personal anecdotes. Shortly after first hearing the news I did read that the death was from cancer that may have been brought on by his longtime smokeless tobacco use. This really made my blood boil. MLB should look at banning this stuff for all players, minors to majors. That would be a lasting legacy beyond his Hall of Fame career.

Richard Y said...

A lovely tribute to a very lovey man, San Diego and the worlds best.

Anonymous said...

BobinVT, MLB did ban it in the minors in 1993. But to do it in the majors would have to be part of the next collective bargaining agreement.

Ken,

A lovely tribute to a great guy. I think the personal stories are the best way to show what a person is. Another I found that brought tears to my eyes was from Keith Olbermann. Say what you want about the guy, he is a good writer. http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=11095435

Pam, another fan from St. Louis

Mike Barer said...

Pam, I couldn't get the Olbermann tribute video to play. Darn it. I'll try it at home.

Anonymous said...

Another tear jerker of an article is Tom Friend.

http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/11093930/mlb-tony-gwynn-used-fear-motivation

Pam, St. Louis

Howard Hoffman said...

I loved watching him play and loved hearing the stories. They ended far too soon. Thanks for a great tribute, Ken.

Pizzagod said...

I'm sorry for your loss-he sounds like one of the truly special people in the public eye, and a real credit to the sport and the world.

Johnny Walker said...

Very sad. Makes you want to tell the important people in your life today how much you value them, rather than tomorrow, when it might be too late.

Chris D. said...

Ken,
Thank you for the moving tribute, I was lucky enough to have meet Mr. Gwynn and chat with him for a few minutes. For a STAR, he gave everyone his time, I think he knew how special meeting a ballplayer was to the fams. Ken with your ties to the Padres could you keep your blog informed with any news from the team. I hope they honor Mr. Gwynn in some huge way.
Again thank you,
Chris

goodman.dl said...

Growing up as an Orioles fan, I never got to see Gwynn in person - a lot of us kind of slotted him in as San Diego's Cal Ripken - Gwynn was an amazing hitter and a wonderful ambassador for the game.

Now that I live in DC, we read a lot about him because of his role mentoring Strasburg. He was pretty much everybody's hero.

John Symes said...

Hey Passenger,

Great tribute to one of the hardest working ballplayers of the modern era! My dad dies of tongue cancer. It's a horrible way to go. Wish Tony had not had to suffer like that. Take notice young ballplayers, chewing tobacco is just as bad, if not worse, than smoking a cigarette.

Breadbaker said...

In his middle school picture, my kid is wearing a t-shirt we got at the Murph honoring Tony's 3000th hit. As a lifelong Mariners fan (he was at opening day when he was three weeks old), my son owned no other paraphernalia of an opposing player, but this one he wore on picture day.

Victor Velasco said...

What a fantastic player, and, with yours and many other tributes it's clear what an incredible person he was...it was a privilege to watch him play.

H Johnson said...

Ken,

I don't cry easily but I did for Tony.

My heart hurts.

Nixon said...

I was living in San Diego in the 80s including the year the Padres went to the World Series. Tony Gwynn was a big part of the reason they went. The only other guy I've seen who reminds me of the way he hit the ball is Ichiro in his first few years here. Seemed automatic that whenever Tony was up he would hit the ball through the infield in a perfect spot just out of anyone's reach and get on base. He had the voice of a kid and when you heard him speak you could tell that he was a genuinely nice guy. Always ready to shake a hand, sign an autograph or do an interview. Comfortable in his own skin. One of the best hitters of all time. Like all the great ones he made it look easy. Must've been a great coach to play for too at San Diego State. He always had a lump in his cheek where he kept his chewing tobacco, just like lots of players used to do. Tobacco has killed a lot of good people. It's unfortunate that Tony Gwynn has fallen victim to it. Doesn't seem fair.

chuckcd said...

One of the best all time players, and best all time people ever.

Going to miss him.

It is a real sad day.

DrBOP said...

Thanks for hittin' a homer here Mr. Levine.

David K. M. Klaus said...

It isn't relevant except for the size of the man and the size of his heart, but this makes me think of the final line of "Big, Bad John":

"At the bottom of this mine lies a big, big man...."

YEKIMI said...

You keep writing tributes like these, you're going to become the next George Jessel.

Blair Ivey said...

My introduction to Tony Gwynn the person came from George Will's book 'Men At Work'. Mr. Gwynn's dedication to his craft is a lesson for all of us. I still wonder what could have been if the 1994 season had gone the distance.

VP81955 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
VP81955 said...

I doubt you'd remember him, Ken, but there was a center fielder and third baseman named Bill Tuttle who played in the '50s and '60s, mostly for the Tigers. Kansas City A's and Twins. I recall seeing him play in Syracuse (then a Yankees affiliate) in 1967, four years after his final MLB game, though I'm not sure he was property of the big club. (A player named Steve Demeter, who briefly played in the bigs, did likewise with Rochester of the IL for years and years.) He may have retired after '67, because the Chiefs had a late season promotion where Tuttle played all nine positions during the game.

Anyway, Tuttle was a frequent tobacco chewer, and it caught up with him; part of his jaw had to be removed. He became an anti-tobacco crusader up to his death in 1998.

Just something to ponder.

VincentS said...

Wow. Tony Gwynn AND Casey Kasem. Makes me want to be a nicer person both to honor their memories and at least pick up some of the slack for the loss.

Mark said...

Nice tribute and thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful tribute, Ken. I remember listening to you on the radio here in the mid-90s. You were a pleasure to listen to. Tony was a pleasure to watch and an even greater pleasure to encounter off the field. This world is a better place having had Tony Gwynn in it but a worse place without him in it now. This is a devastating loss but your tribute to him was wonderful and heartfelt.

Anonymous said...

Ken, You write the best tributes. Never too serious, always with a kind hearted, light touch. You, sir, are a mensch.

Storm said...

My adopted hometown is still in deep mourning; he is so beloved, they're airing/streaming his memorial service.

As I've mentioned before, baseball really isn't My Thing at all, but man, I loved Tony Gwynn. I arrived here in San Diego at about the same time he did, so he's always been part of living in San Diego for me. And when I read the news that he was gone, I burst out crying, because while I may not be a fan of the game, I thought/think the world of him, as does most everyone in the city/county. As you mentioned, he was always known for being extraordinarily kind and humble, and always gave his time and money generously to help the community, especially helping kids play sports. Retirement didn't slow him down; he was all over the place, helping out at fundraisers, teaching Little Leaguers, and just being a Good Guy. Even when he announced he was ill, he did it with his usual upbeat attitude, and he seemed to be getting better.

This world, and my beloved but goofyass town, needs more Good Guys in it, not less.

Farewell, Mister Padre,

Storm