It was a summer night in 2002, and as I settled into the batter’s box with what felt like a thousand people surrounding me and my rapidly deteriorating grandfather slumped into a lawn chair behind home plate, I didn’t think about the pressure of a championship game or the overwhelming desire to give the strongest man I ever knew one triumphant final memory. I thought of Tony Gwynn.
I thought of Tony Gwynn virtually every single at-bat and it was important for me not to break habit. So, as I settled into the box, hoping to spark my team to a Pony League championship, thus capping what may have been the greatest baseball summer of my life, I took aim for right field.
Being a small kid–one of the smallest boys, or girls, really, in my class–I always had underwhelming power in the sense that I didn’t have any power at all. So from about the time I was old enough to understand Tony Gwynn’s greatness, I tried to emulate his style.
I figured that if I could become a right-handed version of Tony Gwynn in the batter’s box, flipping singles over the second baseman’s head and through the hole on the right side–my own 3.5 hole–I might be able to hang around the game just long enough to call myself a ballplayer.
I wore right field out that summer, spinning softly hit liners gently through/over the infield, occasionally getting lucky enough to have the ball kick into the short corner of McKinley Park so that I could leg out a double and describe it to my friends and family the next day as if I had hammered the ball into the gap.
On this night, however, as I tried to think of Tony Gwynn and how I wanted to attack this at-bat just as Tony would have done, I had another image of Tony sweetly crawl into my brain. I saw that famed exchange at the 1999 All Star Game between Tony and his friend Ted Williams, and I thought deeply about those two enjoying such a beautiful moment when it was clear that Ted didn’t have many of those moments left.
I stepped out of the batter’s box and looked back at my grandfather in awe of the spectacle. At the time, I wasn’t sure if he had any clue that the little boy at the plate was his grandson, but I could tell he was happy.
I stepped back in and flipped a single into right field. We won the game 5-4.
Not even a month later, Ted Williams was gone. The following spring, my grandfather was gone, too, a day after his 82nd birthday. He had cake and remembered my grandmother’s face before a heart attack took away his pain.
In the months between the game and his death, I visited my grandfather only a handful of times. I wanted to maintain an image I always had of him at the dinner table, wearing a short-sleeved shirt, farmer’s tanned from a hard day’s work in the fields and asking someone to pass the salt or the butter in a way that only he could:
With a grunt.
I didn’t want to let the Alzheimer’s take that away from me.
However, the last couple times I saw him, during a time when I was told he typically didn’t remember anything, I had the luxury of him remembering me instantly. More specifically, I had the luxury of him remembering that championship game.
He didn’t know that I was emulating Tony Gwynn up there. By that point, he didn’t know who Tony Gwynn was, if he ever had (my grandfather was never a huge sports guy).
He didn’t know that I had developed an approach to hitting based off some contact hitter in an era where all any of the rest of my friends wanted to do was hit home runs. He just knew that it was me out there, and I had “hit that ball.”
Every time I think of Tony Gwynn now, I think of this moment that he gave to me. I think of my grandfather.
When I heard he had passed yesterday morning, I was instantly taken back to that night.
I never met Tony Gwynn. I never got to show him my appreciation for unwittingly giving me one of the best moments of my childhood. I never got to thank him for being the person I most wanted to be on a baseball field.
Many more people did know him, though, and he’s been eulogized beautifully by dozens who did have the privilege. They all paint a similar picture: One of a great baseball player and an even better human being.
I don’t have a personal story to add. There’s no little anecdote where I tell you about a time I met Tony and he made me smile. I just have a summer night in 2002 that will now ALWAYS remind me of Tony Gwynn and my grandfather.
I just wish I’d had the chance to say thank you… to both of them.