This is the story of how a young boy from Long Island, NY, born into Mets’ fandom, became a fan of the San Diego Padres as well.
I was born in 1983. I don’t remember my first team, the New York Mets, winning the 1986 World Series. I didn’t have a clue who the San Diego Padres even were until a few years later.
What I do remember is, as a young child, my father not letting me swing the bat from the right side of the plate. He would line up across the plate from me (he hit righty) and be telling me to watch him and do what he did.
Unfortunately, my dad, bless his soul, did not have a buttery-sweet baseball swing. Being a left-handed hitter and the precocious (borderline obnoxious) little kid that I was, I wanted to see how it was done by someone who did it like I did it. I was five-years-old. What can I say?
So, being the quintessential Mets’ fan that he was, he told me to watch the Metropolitan’s fiery first-baseman, Keith Hernandez. So I did. And boy, was his swing perfect.
Fast forward to 1989. In the span of 24 hours, the Mets released two of my childhood heroes in Gary Carter and the aforementioned Keith Hernandez. I remember, vividly, lying on my kitchen floor and sobbing.
My favorite player and the person I was modeling my swing after was gone. I asked my Dad once again, who should I watch? It took him all of two seconds to say the name of the player who would open my baseball horizons well past perfecting my swing; Tony Gwynn.
How I became a fan of the San Diego Padres
The world was still a couple of years away from the internet so I did what any baseball fan of my age had to do to read up on their favorite team or players. In addition to poring over the boxscores every day in New York Newsday, I was able to learn in a different, now obsolete way…
I went to the public library and scoured through boxes of microfiche reels looking for any Tony Gwynn news, which I found plenty of. It also led me to Ted Williams‘ baseball bible, The Science of Hitting, but that’s another story for another day.
The West Coast final scores were always too late to make their way into the morning edition so I was forced to read box scores from Padres games one day later. I started asking when the Padres were coming to New York.
As it just so happened, the night that Mets’ Hall of Famer Tom Seaver‘s number was being retired, they were playing the San Diego Padres. My father saw the opportunity to bring his son to see one of the game’s best hitters in-person and he jumped at it (Seaver was his favorite player, as well).
Being as it was, the insurance brokerage he worked for had season-tickets down on the field-level and, needless to say, we got there in plenty of time for batting practice.
A few Padres made their way over to the throngs of young fans looking for autographs after taking their hacks, as they did in those days (and, in some places, still do). Benito Santiago came by and signed my program, as did a very young Roberto Alomar. My brother and I had no idea who he was but, luckily, we saved that autograph.
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Mr. Padre himself…
As the Padres players started filing into the dugout and the cage was being pulled away from behind the plate, the one Padres’ player I was hoping to see finally made his way over.
“Mr. Gwynn! Mr. Gwynn! You’re my favorite player!”, I shouted. He stopped in his tracks. It’s almost as if he remembered he wasn’t in Jack Murphy Stadium and had no choice but to see where this odd proclamation was coming from.
He turned, saw me in my Mets gear and laughed that wonderful, jovial laugh we all knew so well. He asked how I became such a big fan, so I told him, “You’ve got the sweetest lefty swing me or my Dad have ever seen.”
Miraculously, his smile got even bigger. He gave me a piece of hitting advice that I still carry with me to this day. “Show the pitcher the number on the back of your jersey, dig your chin into that spot right there (points to my right shoulder), and look at the ball with this eye (points to my right eye).”
Then, he said, “Once that pitcher brings his arm up, open up those hips and let the rest of your body unwind with them. Never take that eye off of the ball and let the bat do the rest”. Then he told me to show him.
So, pantomiming a bat in my hands, I did. There was that smile again. I looked back at my Dad with the largest-toothiest smile you could imagine on a 7-year-old kid and asked him, “Is it OK to like the Mets and the Padres?”.
One more smile, right on cue. Miss you, Dad.