When you grow up a fan of certain team, any team, no matter its level of success, there will be players in the other dugout or even the other league whom you wished were on your side.
For a Red Sox fan who grew older and somewhat up in the ’80s, my personal roster envy consisted of just a few players.
I would have traded a lineup of Wade Boggses (hey, how was I supposed to know he was ahead of his time with all those crazy walks?) for a single George Brett.
I imagined the Mets offering Dwight Gooden to the Red Sox straight-up for Roger Clemens. How we’d sucker them with that one.
I thought Kirby Puckett was everything the Red Sox needed and never had.
And I wished I could see Tony Gwynn call Fenway Park home.
I told my friends, insisted in that know-it-all-because-you-know-nothing eight-grade way, that he was a better hitter than Boggs. The back of their baseball cards didn’t offer a clear decision, and honestly, who was I to render a verdict? Statistically, he was Boggs, but he seemed cooler, nicer, less odd and obsessive.
But we only had a very rare appearance on national television — usually an All-Star Game — to gather first-hand knowledge. There was no MLB Network then, kids.
Gwynn was the superstar we admired from afar, one we knew would never even ponder coming to Boston to play, like Puckett later did. He was loyal to San Diego, having gone to school there, and he belonged to the city as much as the city belonged to him.
The only possibility to see him (at least before interleague play was introduced) was to hope the Red Sox and Padres clashed in the World Series.
Neither team was particularly adept at holding up their end of a bargain.
The Padres, save for World Series appearances in 1984 and ’98, were habitually mediocre during Gwynn’s 20 seasons (1982-2001), and you know how the Red Sox were. Gwynn ended his career with 10,232 plate appearances. Not one came at Fenway.
But we did get to know the San Diego baseball icon eventually — and appropriately, it came through a kinship with Boston’s baseball icon, who coincidentally grew up in Gwynn’s city decades before.
Gwynn’s awe-stricken admiration for Williams, and the bond they developed while chatting on a different plane than the rest of us about their mutual obsession and gift for hitting, led to an unforgettable moment that finally brought him to Fenway.
Gwynn didn’t get a plate appearance at the 1999 All-Star Game — somehow, Ed Sprague did — but he was right there at Williams’s side for friendship and support during the pregame ceremony. It was a remarkable moment, the greatest players of that era surrounding Williams and turning into little kids in his presence. Gwynn was the one he leaned on.
Williams, still splendid but a splinter of the man he was in his youth, passed away three Julys later. We mourned then. San Diego mourns their legend of a different era today.
I’m trying not to think about how young Gwynn was (54) or how young he always seemed — perpetual and genuine sunniness is a fine way to hide the years. We all knew he was ill. But perhaps my ears perked for the good news (he signed a new contract with San Diego State, where he coached baseball, just a few months ago) while refusing to hear the alarms (he took a leave of absence not much later). I did not know his death was imminent.
The shock of the news has given way to an ache, and so rather than mourning a life too short, I keep turning toward a career long and fulfilled. Gwynn’s life ended too soon, but his baseball career was almost entirely on his own terms.
He was just a pinch-hitter at the end, his hair shorter and his waistline considerable larger than during his speedy youth, but he still knew how to hit a baseball to a spot where it would find grass rather than leather.
In his final season, Gwynn put up a .324/.384/.461 slash line — at age 41. He had knees of an offensive lineman who was chop-blocked 10 too many times, and he had the build of a guy who drove his dietician into a new line of work.
But man, the hit skill was still there, even in the last at-bats. It’s something else he had in common with Williams, who set an impossible standard for 41-year-old mortals with a .316/.451/.645 line and 29 homers in 310 at-bats in his final season.
Two more thoughts about Gwynn’s seasons and statistics:
* When we discuss what was lost during the 1994 baseball strike, the first topic usually relates to the Montreal Expos, given that it might have cost them a championship and contributed to costing the city its franchise. That’s understandable. But Gwynn’s shot at .400 also must be discussed. He was hitting .394 when the strike halted everything — and his batting average was climbing. He hit .423 in the second half that year and .475 in 10 games in August. He wanted the challenge, and he had the makeup and skill to achieve it. I’m convinced the strike cost baseball its first .400 hitter since — right, Ted Williams — in 1941. It would have been another thing for them to discuss, and given Williams’s respect for Gwynn, I’m sure he would have welcomed the company in the .400 club.
* Gwynn’s best season probably was the abbreviated ’94, when he put up a .394/.454/.568 slash line with 12 homers, 35 doubles, and a career-best 169 adjusted OPS. His age-37 season — 1997 — also is in the argument. He went .372/.409/.547 with career-highs in hits (220), homers (17), and RBIs (119). But my personal favorite Gwynn season was 1987: he won his second of eight batting titles, hitting .370 (.447/.511), won his second Gold Glove (he was a self-made right fielder), walked 82 times against 35 strikeouts, and — the key fact for my purposes — stole 56 bases while getting caught 12 times. I had him on my Strat-O-Matic team that summer, and he was he ever a menace to my dad’s and cousins’ teams.
It was the closest I would know to the joys of rooting for Tony Gwynn day after day.
San Diego fans, they got the real thing for 20 years and beyond. They knew how blessed they were. I envy them still, even as baseball fans mourn as one.