Dear Tony Gwynn,
I have admired you since the day my Father taught me about baseball. Even before I could walk, my parents brought me to Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego to watch the Padres. They’d always sit in Right Field so they could get the best view of you on defense, and possibly even snag a ball over the wall from you on offense. I’d be in the baby carrier, tucked under one of the seats so I wouldn’t burn. My Mom says I was never bothered by all of the cheers. I guess it felt like home even then.
Sometimes, my Father would come get me out of school for an early afternoon game. He’d say, “How ’bout some het-degs” and I’d know we were headed to the stadium. The people in the stands selling hotdogs always said it real funny – like they were talking out of the side of their mouths. “Het-degs. Get yer het-degs, here!”
When I was old enough, my Father and I would play catch in the parking lot. He taught me about the only time the Padres had ever been to the World Series was the year I was born – 1984. He said it was only your 3rd Season, but you led that team like you were born to. He also taught me about what a “Golden Glove” was, and how you got your first of 5 in 1986. I started memorizing your stats before I was even old enough to have homework. I lined the walls of my room with clippings from the San Diego Union Tribune. I spent hours staring at the articles, wondering what I’d say when I finally got to meet you one day.
When I was 10, I went to a game with Randy Jones (he was good friends with my friend’s Dad). I talked the whole time about you and how someday I’d get to shake your hand. At one point in the game, Randy left and said he’d be right back. He came back a little bit later with a ball just for me – signed by both himself and you. I stared at that ball every night as a teen, hoping for your strength and talent to rub off on me.
When I was 14, I got to see you take the Padres to their second ever World Series. It was the greatest year in baseball history to me. That’s the thing about being a Padre fan – we don’t take those years for granted. Some teams might count up World Series appearances like they’re poker chips. But in San Diego, we savor those moments. I can still remember where I was for each of those games. We lost the Series in 4 games to the Yankees, but I didn’t care. I was never more proud to be a Padre.
When I was 17, I attended your final Home game – I had seats just above the dug-out. My face was painted and I had the throw-back mustard yellow jersey on. By that time, your knees and back weren’t doing so well. They brought you in to pinch hit somewhere around the 6th. I don’t remember much about the at-bat other than it was short and it was an out, but right before you ducked back into the dug-out, you took off your helmet and lifted it to the crowd. Many people might claim you looked at them, but I like to think that your eyes were right on me that day.
When I was 19, I was away at school. I was working on a major project with two teammates and my phone rang. It was my Father. I almost didn’t answer, but realized it had been a while since we talked. I had barely picked up when I heard my father say in a rushed voice, “You will never guess who is standing only a few feet from me.” There is only ONE person on this planet for which my Father would say those words…and it is you. My Father had been at the airport at the same time you and the SDSU team were heading out. Somehow my Father convinced you to take the phone because just moments later I heard your voice on the line. It was the greatest 30-second conversation of my life and yet I can barely remember what I said. I hope I didn’t sound too crazy as I explained that I was number 28 in college because that is the number you wore at San Diego State. When I hung up, I remember bursting into tears, my teammates beyond confused. There is no way I could explain what an amazing experience that was for me.
I don’t know what got you to take the phone from my Father that day in the San Diego Airport, but I feel so lucky you did because, as it turns out, that was the closest I’d ever get to shaking your hand.
My Father sent me a text this morning at 8:42 AM PST, telling me you’d passed. My heart jumped into my throat. I feel so connected to you, and yet I never even got to meet you face-to-face. I may just be one in hundreds of thousands of fans, but I hope you can feel the love I have for you….that all of us have for you. You are the Spirit of San Diego, Mr. Padre, and you always will be.
Keep your glove on…not only will I get to shake your hand one day, but I’m having myself a catch, too.