When Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn passed away a couple of weeks ago, I was on the road and had yet to start writing for Riverfront Ball. As a consequence, I didn’t take the chance to express my thoughts, even though the news hit me hard. As a Cincinnati Reds fan of the 1980s, Gwynn formed an integral part of the baseball fabric in which I enveloped myself during my teen years, so I decided to revisit the man one more time. After all, it never hurts to pay tribute to a legend, even if you’re late to the party.
My memories of Tony Gwynn, as is the case for many fans of the era, begin in 1984 when he emerged from the baseball card commons bin to mount an assault on the National League batting title, bringing his downtrodden San Diego Padres along for the ride. By mid-summer, Gwynn had entwined himself with “1984” like Orwell had before him, and hand-in-hand with the phenomena known as the Detroit Tigers and Dwight Gooden. It was a magical time, even for a pre-teen who worshiped at the altar of the lowly Reds.
By mid-May, I was out of school and had about a full year of serious baseball fandom under my belt. My parents were always quick to indulge my interests, and we began making plans to attend our first Reds game. After some schedule jockeying, we decided that our best bet would be June 22, when the Padres came to town.
I had never been so excited for anything in my life, not even for Christmas! Every moment of the next month was filled with plotting and planning and dreaming about that fateful day when I would unite with my team. When we finally arrived at the stadium on that hot and humid night, I was breathless, and I nearly hyperventilated when we stepped into the concourse and I caught my first glimpse of that gorgeous, ethereally green turf (yes, I know it was artificial).
We found our seats, which were — you guessed it — just beyond the right-field fence. We were there early enough to see home batting practice, and I was absolutely mesmerized by the whole scene. I hardly noticed when the Padres took their cuts a bit later, but I remember being star-struck when San Diego manager Jack McKeon ran his lineup card out to the umpires before the game started.
The top of the first inning brought us face-to-backside with Dave Parker, who had been the Reds’ big off-season acquisition and would go on to have an MVP-type of year with Cincinnati in 1985. I remember him being huge and athletic, and I think he may have tossed a couple of balls into the stands, but he didn’t seem overly friendly with fans.
It wasn’t until the Reds came to bat in the bottom of the first that I got my first up-close glimpse of baseball greatness. Young Mr. Gwynn trotted out to right field and was greeted by shrieks from the smattering of fans in our region of cavernous Riverfront. That megawatt smile flashed as he gave a quick wave and then turned to his business. Throughout the game, Tony maintained contact with the rival fans between innings, and I was amazed at how affable he was for a guy at the top of his profession, leading the world with something like a .370 batting average. Gwynn was just 24 years old that day and collected only one hit in four at bats, but I was convinced that I had just witnessed baseball royalty.
Many of my memories and impressions from that game 30 years ago have proven to be suspect, as my impressionable mind undoubtedly imparted more significance to mundane events than they deserved. The riotous throng that I remember filling the stadium, for example, amounted to just 23,552 paying customers on that Friday night. And although Dan Driessen seemed to me like the greatest player on earth that day during fielding practice, the truth is that he was on his way out of town, soon gone to the Montreal Expos in the deal that brought Pete Rose home.
One thing I got right, though, was the joy that Tony Gwynn brought to the game and to his fans, from his unparalleled hitting to his genuine happiness on the field. His place in the baseball firmament has been long cemented, and we’re all worse off without him. For me in particular, his passing represents the crinkling of yet another page from my mental childhood scrapbook.
No matter, though, because Gwynn will always be there in his smiling brown and mustard splendor when I need a reminder of why I love this game.