The late Tony Gwynn. Mandatory Credit: dws.cbslocal.com
Tony Gwynn died Monday. That much we know at this point. What we haven’t quite figured out collectively is why it was his time? Last season he was joining broadcasts. We just saw him coaching at SDSU not long ago. He took a leave of absence, but that was temporary. Sure, it was known he was fighting cancer. Cancer is never good. We saw the swollen face, bandages over the bottom of his face. Yet this was Tony Gwynn. 20 seasons in the Major Leagues. Fifteen times he made the All-Star Team. How could he be gone?
Yesterday, I had the chance to go down to the Tony Gwynn statue at Park in the Park and reflect on the life Tony lived inside and outside of the ballpark. My favorite Tony Gwynn moment came during the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park. You remember the game, right? MLB was trotting out it’s All-Century Team. It was drama created for TV, but that didn’t cheapen the moment. In retrospect, some shouldn’t have been there. The steroid users were there too in Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro, walking on hallowed baseball ground. It was a moment where the magic of baseball was on full display, as history met present met future. A live Field of Dreams. Albert Pujols wasn’t yet in the major leagues, Ken Griffey Jr. was in his last consecutive season as a Seattle Mariner – and the last of 11 consecutive All-Star Selections. Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays all walked around together. This wasn’t heaven, but it wasn’t Iowa either or a movie set. This was real.
Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn at the 1999 All-Star Game
Yet as the players assembled in the infield, the gates opened in the outfield and on a golf cart came the man who owned Fenway Park, Ted Williams came through the gates. A Boston hero (in retrospect) and American war hero, even if he wasn’t always adored by fans or reporters during his playing days. He tipped his cap and waved to fans as he drove up to the infield and pitcher’s mound for the first pitch. Williams was 80-years-old at the time, and he had suffered through a couple of strokes and a broken hip. Yet as you watched, you could feel the old ballplayer who hit a home run in his final at-bat will himself in that moment to stand up. Stand up he did. His eyesight wasn’t what it used to be, and he needed a steady hand to find the plate.
In came Tony Gwynn. Despite the suspicion of drug use with some of the other players gathered on that mound, Tony Gwynn was not one of them. Tony’s swing was as pure as Ted’s, his intellect of how to hit and what to hit unparallelled. Two of the greatest hitters of all time – together – a bridge between past and present. For baseball being called a slow sport, this moment topped them all. Time lost its effectiveness, as the living legends stood in one of baseball’s most memorable ballparks. The announcers called for the players to leave, but no one wanted to. Not Cal Ripken Jr. Not Ted Williams. Not Tony Gwynn. If you didn’t tear up while watching this, you should be checked for a pulse.
It was an incredible moment for any baseball fan. As I heard about Gwynn’s passing on Monday, I thought about this moment from 15 years ago.
Someday in the future, a new hitting genius will rise. He might already be in our midst in Mike Trout – but the genius of Tony Gwynn and Williams was their longevity and sustained incredible hitting. Tony Gwynn won’t be there to drive out in a golf cart. Mike Trout won’t be able to guide an aging, smiling (of course) Tony Gwynn towards home plate for the ceremonial first pitch. It doesn’t seem fair that the baseball world and world in general lost him so soon.