The fault in our All-Stars
You put the killing thing in your mouth but you don’t give it the power to do its killing….
Okay, last night’s 1-0 defeat by the Dodgers wasn’t as bad as cancer or grown-ups who read nothing but young-adult literature, but it was one of the most excruciating losses of the season thus far, starring Adam Wainwright as the doomed Shakespearean protagonist amid a supporting cast of fatally flawed position players (et tu, Bourjos?). Thus I’m not going to write about it; I’m going to write, briefly and insufficiently, about Tony Gwynn.
Though I grew up as a Cardinal fan in St. Louis and I’ll never understand people who change teams when they change cities, I’ve lived in southern California for nearly 19 years, and the Padres have become my favorite of the three local teams I can find on my radio or my TV. There are different reasons for that: Accessibility (they have the prettiest and friendliest stadium of the three); pity (they don’t win much these days); and process of elimination (somehow, the Padres’ front-office offenses still aren’t as viscerally icky to me as those of the McCourt-era Dodgers and the Moreno-era Angels).
And they had Tony Gwynn. I’d watched him as a player when I was growing up, when San Diego to me was a faraway desert nation with an inexplicable chicken as its mascot, and Gwynn was an equally inexplicable combination of deep, true goodness in his everyday life and scientific, slump-proof production at the plate. His hitting and his kindness were both so automatic as to be underappreciated; he was a sabermetric darling before sabermetrics existed, and a scout’s (and fan’s) ideal blend of athletic talent, hard work, and inexhaustible goodwill. Year after year he delivered stats that were nearly unfathomable in their excellence and their consistency, even though he never had a “go crazy, folks”-caliber highlight to symbolize and immortalize his accomplishments for the baseball-watching public. He played for two decades in a city that the national media often overlooked, but he never tried to leave for a bigger payday, and he continued to make his home there after his playing career was finished.
Sound familiar? Yeah—he was San Diego’s Stan Musial, except that we got to enjoy and appreciate Stan for almost forty years more than the Padre faithful had Tony, thanks to the evil of tobacco and the dumb cruelty of fate.
Fabulously, the Sporting News had the foresight to put Tony and Stan in a room with each other in 1997 to talk about hitting and home life and humility, and as you’d expect, there’s an entire baseball education in this interview. It’s difficult to imagine that two one-team hitters of this stature will ever sit and talk shop again.
Tony Gwynn’s steady presence in the San Diego community and the Padre fan base, as both a reminder of better days and an ongoing source of charity and cheer, made a lot of other baseball pains more bearable for the folks around here. That he was lost so young, so soon after Jerry Coleman, and in the midst of a great deal of other Byrnes- and Black- and Lincecum-adjacent stresses feels especially unfair.
But Stans and Tonys never really go away. I’ve read a great many columns and blog posts and tweets about Gwynn’s legacy, about the standard of excellence he reminds the Padres to aspire to again someday, about the on-the-field feats and the off-the-field encounters people will most remember him for. My favorite story so far, though, comes from my friend Matt, a lifelong Padres fan whose three-year-old son is named Anthony (not a conscious tribute, he says, but at worst a happy coincidence). Last night, Matt began to try to explain to Anthony who Tony Gwynn was and why he mattered.
“Is he going to come to my house and play baseball?” Anthony asked excitedly.
As Matt said later: Yes, he probably would have loved to.