Monday, June 23, 2014

A Real Sports Hero: Tony Gwynn

This past Monday, the world lost a real sports hero.

His name was Tony Gwynn.

But to be honest, I didn't realize how big of a sports hero Tony Gwynn was until it was too late.

When I was 4years old, my family moved from Abilene, Texas to San Diego, California. And soon after our move, we started becoming San Diego Padres fans. We had partial season tickets right behind home plate on the second deck of Jack Murphy Stadium for the impossible price of $7.50 a ticket. Try finding that deal today.

Tony Gwynn started out as a 2-sport athlete. On the same day in 1981, Tony was drafted by the San Diego Padres and the San Diego Clippers, the basketball franchise that would soon leave for Los Angeles.

Gwynn's physique looked a bit different in the brown and gold than it looked near the end of his career, but his physical appearance late in his career defied his athleticism. He knew how to hit the baseball.
Yet, I have to confess I never owned a Tony Gwynn jersey. I was more excited about the 2 or 3 year signees that "did their time" in San Diego before hitting the jackpot in a larger market. I wanted the autographs of guys like Roberto Alomar, Benito Santiago, Fred McGriff, and Gary Sheffield.

But Tony was the guy who stayed in San Diego all of his career. He spent 20 seasons on the Padres, a team that went to the playoffs three times in the two decades Gwynn was with the team. He was "Mr. Padre" and he earned that nickname by being loyal to a fault.

It's embarrassing to admit he was not my sports hero growing up. In an era that featured big contracts, big markets, big home run totals, and big steroid bills, Tony Gwynn was never appreciated.

There was nothing marketable about Tony Gwynn. He was never sponsored by Gatorade or Reebok. Michael Jordan wasn't concerned about Tony taking his coveted hero status at Nike.

But, man, could he hit a baseball.

Here are some stats that stand out in his 20 seasons:
-Batting Titles: 8 (More than anyone other than Ty Cobb & Honus Wagner)
-All-Star Teams: 15
-Gold Gloves: 5
-Silver Sluggers: 7
-Career Batting Average: .338
-Career Hits: 3,141
-Lowest Batting Avg. in the 19 complete seasons he played: .309
-Most strikeouts in a season: 40
-Struck out 434 times in his career. That's once in every 21 at-bats!
-Stats against Greg Maddux: 107 Plate Appearances, .415 Batting Avg., 0 Strikeouts
-Only player since 1928 to have 300 career steals and a career batting average of at least .338

My two greatest heroes over the past 2 decades have been Tiger Woods and LeBron James. They have everything Tony Gwynn didn't. They've won major championships. They look the part. They're marketable. They're cocky. One wears red every Sunday and the other wears Red every game he's played after "The Decision."

But nothing made me wonder about my choice of sports heroes until I heard about Tony's death on Monday.

Because Tony's greatest statistic isn't any of those mentioned above.

What was his greatest statistic?

World Series Championships: 0

He was loyal. He was unassuming. He played in a lousy baseball stadium where ESPN's cameras rarely visited. He could hit the baseball, but he never threw a fist pump. It wasn't about him. It was about the Padres.

But even the Padres he didn't take that seriously.

I don't remember the year, but I remember the scene vividly. My family was at Spring Training watching the Padres over Spring Break. My brother, Clark, and I couldn't have been 10 years old yet. We were looking for autographs from the usual suspects: McGriff and Sheffield. I think Rickey Henderson was in camp that year.

But as we were looking for the stars, Tony Gwynn walked right in front of us. I missed my opportunity, but Clark ran up to Tony unprepared, without a ball or baseball card to sign. All Clark had was an Atlanta Braves baseball hat.

With a sheepish look, Clark offered his hat and his pen to Tony for a signature. And I can still remember the high-pitched question Tony threw back at my brother..."Atlanta Braves????"

But he signed the hat anyway.

That was Tony Gwynn. Quiet...unassuming...without fanfare...humble.

We don't know how to pick out the real sports heroes anymore. We root for whoever Nike tells us to.

But if there was any game I would go back to if I had the chance, it would be the night of Tony Gwynn's 2,000th hit. We were there that night. But somehow I don't remember the moment. I remember Gary Sheffield's home run in the second deck. I remember Fred McGriff's 450+ ft. blast to right. I don't remember Tony's 2,000th.

And if I had it to do over again, I'd have bought that #19 jersey and worn it to every Padre game I could.

Rest in peace "Mr. Padre." RIP Tony Gwynn.
Great Tribute to Tony Gwynn by Keith Olberman:

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