In 1994, I was an eight-year-old kid growing up in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon. Like most kids, I loved video games, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and ice cream. Sports were not really my thing, but that summer helped change my life for the better.
In those days, the Padres were absolutely horrible. The organization was a loser, the team had no hope. Like many other kids, I could have easily started cheering for a more successful franchise like the Atlanta Braves or the New York Yankees, like most of my friends did. However, my hapless hometown nine pulled me in with a single presence: Mr. Tony Gwynn.
The first time I saw Gwynn, I was smitten. He was 34 then, past his physical prime, but he still had lightning-quick wrists. He always put good swings on the ball and slapped pitches through his infamous "5.5 hole." He was a chubby man then, and he gave hope to a chubby kid like myself. I propped myself in front of the television as much as I could, just to watch him abuse National League pitching staffs.
In those days, the Padres weren't on television too much, maybe 2-3 games a week. They were broadcast over-the-air on KUSI-TV and I used to fidget with my rabbit ears on my little 13" television I owned to get a decent picture. The Padres were absolutely putrid, but Tony Gwynn got me excited to tune in. It didn't really matter if the Padres won -- I just wanted to see Gwynn perform his art.
Gwynn always reminded me of a great artist. His bat was the brush, the ball was the paint and the diamond was his canvas. Fastballs, curves, sliders -- Gwynn hammered them all. My favorite Gwynn moments involved him turning on an inside pitch and slamming it into the right field gap.
As soon as I witnessed Gwynn's greatness, I aspired to be just like him in every way. I read his book "The Art of Hitting" cover-to-cover. I tried to stand in the box just like him, I wrote 19 on my wristbands, hunted for a Rawlings glove that had Gwynn's signature and I even carried around a Topps card of Gwynn in my pocket for good luck. If Tony wasn't a Padre then, I doubt I'd love the game of baseball as much as I do.
1998 was one of the best year's of my life. The Padres were a well-oiled machine, led by Kevin Brown, Ken Caminiti, Greg Vaughn and of course Tony Gwynn. That team won the National League West with ease, and ultimately went to the World Series.
Sure, the Padres lost, but Gwynn smacked a homer into the 3rd deck at old Yankee Stadium, and I leaped out of my seat, screaming for my hero and his moment on the biggest stage in baseball. I will never forget that night as long as I live.
When Gwynn retired after the 2001 season, I felt a void. Despite all of the incompetence the Padres have showed throughout my lifetime, Gwynn was the one constant. That safe place you could go to when things got bad. It was surreal to look out in right field and not see Mr. Padre out there.
Gwynn's career was nothing short of remarkable: eight batting titles. two World Series appearances, five gold gloves, a .338 batting average. For a San Diego kid, he represented much more than pure statistics: he was my role model and my hero. Baseball is filled with scumbags, liars, cheaters, drug addicts and guys who abuse their spouses. Gwynn was none of those things: he was as likable as any player the game has ever seen. Gwynn was the kind of man I hoped I would become.
I really wished I had the opportunity to meet Tony. To shake his hand, tell him thank you for everything he gave me. He gave me joy and memories I will always cherish. Gwynn was one of the best things about my childhood. I would give just about anything to be able to have him sign a ball for me, and maybe talk hitting for a minute or two I always hoped I might get that chance someday, but it wasn't meant to be. Perhaps I can see him on the other side and spend a moment with him. Nothing would give me greater pleasure.
Tony's legacy will not be judged by statistics, awards or any other accolades. What will define him will be the memories he gave Padres fans, the way he impacted and touched our lives with his smile, laugh and charisma. Many of us never met Tony, but we felt like we did, and to me that will be his lasting legacy. The way he made a 29-year-old baseball fan cry over his passing. I am not the only one he touched. I felt like I lost a dear friend, and I believe I have. Legends never die, and Gwynn will live forever in San Diego. Rest in peace Tony. I love you.