Its taken me a while to gather my thoughts about the great Tony Gwynn, for a man I only knew for 8 years, he made quite an impact on me and my life. I still can’t believe that he’s gone. 54 years old is way too young for someone to be taken away from us.
When I first met Tony, it was in the radio booth at Petco Park, I have to admit, I was a bit nervous. After all, this was TONY FREAKING GWYNN! The guy that helped to break my heart in 1984, the guy who was destined for the Hall of Fame, the guy collected 3141 hits, and the guy that was nicknamed Mr. Padre. No big deal right? My nerves were calmed right away by this larger than life human being. The extension of his hand and very kind words about my early work during spring training with the Padres put me at ease immediately. I thanked him profusely and may have accidentally called him Mr. Gwynn. He gave me that patented eye roll and kind of ‘pssshaw’ gesture with his hand, “just call me Tony, ok?”. I agreed. Tony was interested in where I came from and what I knew about the Padres and San Diego. When I mentioned I was born and raised in Chicago, I got that Gwynn chuckle, and I think he knew where I was going next. “You helped to ruin my childhood you know”, I said. There was that belly laugh and a quick retort “you Cubs fans are all the same, come on man, let it go, it was 23 years ago, it isn’t my fault anymore!”. I laughed and said I agreed to disagree.
That first meeting may have lasted a total of 20 minutes, but he left the booth and I was left with the feeling that I’d known this man for 20 years. A regular guy. I was impressed and wanted to talk to him more.
I got my wish, that first meeting seemingly led to regular visits to the booth by Tony. He wasn’t at every game, but over the years, I would look so forward to the times he would swing by and ask me for a “state of the Padres” update. He would always tell me, “you’re around the team more than a lot of these guys, that’s why I come to you for my information”. We would talk about everything, the team, San Diego State, USD, baseball, movies, iPhones, iPads, Twitter, Tony Jr, his grand babies, and life in general. I’d always get one of those patented laughs at some point in the conversation which always made me smile and laugh in return.
Tony had a way with the fans. He knew a lot of your names believe it or not. I never once saw him “blow off” a “hey Tony!” call, usually he acknowledged with a wave or a “hey” in return. I loved watching him interact with youngsters on the field before a game, some who knew him, others that had only heard of him. Didn’t matter. Tony would reach out that great big paw of his and shake the little guy or girls hand. The parents would of course be beaming!
Everyone wanted Mr. Padres’ autograph, and I mean everyone. One particular time comes to mind. We were in St. Louis and the team hotel is very close to the ballpark so we’d walk to and from the game. I walked with Tony and our producer Dave Marcus before the 2nd game of the series. The usual crowd gathered around him, Tony would demand order in the proceedings, and would glance at each person and make some eye contact before signing his name on a card, a bat, or a ball. It wasn’t just a stroke of the pen on the item they wanted signed, it was a conversation between a grateful ballplayer and his adoring fans.
I always admired the way Tony handled being around the ballpark after his playing days were over. He was very respectful of management. He never wanted to step on toes or deliver messages that may have been different than those being sent by a hitting coach or a manager. It’s not that Tony disagreed, but here was this tremendous, hall of fame hitter, who could have easily said, listen to me, but there was no way he’d ever do that. His respect for the game lasted I’m sure until the day he left us. A true pro in every respect.
Tony and I always talked about wanting to do a few games together. We got along great, and our chats about baseball were enlightening to me, and I only wish that the listeners would have been able to hear them. We finally got a chance to work together. August 2012 on Fox Sports San Diego in Pittsburgh. The Padres won 2 out of 3 in that series. Chase Headley hit 2 homers one to tie and one to eventually win the game one. Jason Marquis flirted with a no-no in game 2. We had a blast, the baseball was good, the conversation, along with Mark Sweeney who was with us from the field, was educational for a baseball nut like myself and it was like a bunch of friends hanging out watching a game. I thought back to something that he told me after game one of the series. He told me with a straight face, “You make me feel very comfortable in this booth, like I can be myself and just talk about the game”. That is the ultimate compliment someone can pay a broadcaster. I didn’t know what to say. It was a surreal experience for me but one I have never taken for granted.
I told Leila Rahimi, our sideline reporter for the series, that my goal was to make Tony laugh at least a few times in each game. I went back and watched the first 2 games almost in their entirety and mission accomplished. It was so good to hear his voice, it was Tony Gwynn and me, working a major league baseball game. I started laughing thinking about the great times we had, not only in the booth that series but in general, and then started crying immediately. This was an experience that nobody can take away and I’m so grateful that it was able to happen.
The last time I saw Tony, was at Jerry’s memorial at Petco Park in January. He came into the clubhouse where we were all gathered before going onto the field. Tony and I made eye contact and I walked over to him. He grabbed me and hugged me, knowing I was hurting. I knew he was hurting too, after all he’d known the Colonel a lot longer than me. But that was Tony, reaching out, being an unselfish person and wanting to make sure I was ok. Amazing. Tony was also very supportive when I let him know that I wouldn’t be back with the Padres. Sending me a few text messages wishing me the best and telling me he was confident I’d land on my feet. Reassuring words from a great man.
Unlike when Colonel Coleman passed in January, I am not in San Diego to mourn with former co-workers, friends and fans. It’s been tough to deal with mainly alone, but thanks to my new co-workers, I’ve been invited on several occasions, in the middle of Cubs country, to talk about my friend Tony Gwynn on the air in Chicago. People are amazed by his numbers. They love to hear the stories. When they ask me if it’s possible, that all these kind words being showered upon Tony are the truth, I don’t hesitate, to say an emphatic, YES.
It’s been a tough few months for all of us. First losing the Colonel in January, and now Tony. I just hope that they’ve already connected up there, to share a story or two or two hundred and to laugh and laugh and laugh. I’m pretty sure they’ve found each other.
Forget about the numbers. Forget about the awards. Forget about all the accolades. Don’t forget the man. Don’t forget the laugh. Don’t forget what he meant to baseball and the city of San Diego. I know, he’s pretty unforgettable.
Tony Gwynn, you will be missed more than you could have ever imagined. Mr. Padre will live on in our hearts and minds, forever. Rest in peace #19, we love you.
|Before the final home game of the 2011 Season|
|Tony and Me before a game late in 2012 against Arizona|
|Took this picture after the 2007 season ended|