The baseball-card collection I had as a teen—145,000 cards in all when I last bothered to count, 800-count box after 800-count box, all of them occupying a dusty bookcase in my bedroom—was sold years ago. Some random stranger now owns that collection of 400 Tom Glavine rookie cards I bought on speculation at $.04 each. (I haven't checked Beckett recently, but I'm sure that investment has more than doubled.) The tiny handful of cards I kept each serve a purpose. Some remind me that people are idiots (Bill Ripken's "Fuck Face" card); some remind me that we all start somewhere (Ken Griffey Jr.'s San Bernardino Spirit card), and others remind me, as if I need reminding, that Tony Gwynn was one of the finest human beings I've ever met, and that the world is cheaper without him in it.
Most 10 year-old boys walk through life searching for a hero. I found mine in the form of a chubby singles hitter from San Diego State University. I began to actively idolize Tony Gwynn in 1984, the year the unassuming team in Mission Valley put together something magical and made lifelong fans of a collection of people who mostly thought of the ballpark as somewhere to hang out on Sunday afternoon if you were tired of the beach.
I wasn't alone in my worship among my friends, but I tried to do it best. Most of my friends had a Tony Gwynn poster on their walls—I had at least eight. Tony Gwynn growth charts. Tony Gwynn sliding into home. Tony Gwynn in a "Hitting Machine" poster, done up in the style of architectural renderings to capture the mechanics of his swing. Newspaper clippings covered my door. Shirts, mugs, hats, you name it—all bore Tony's face. I would mentally recite Tony's biography to myself each night instead of counting sheep. ("Anthony Keith Gwynn was born on May 9, 1960. His parents were Charles and Vandella Gwynn. He had two brothers, Charles and Chris …").
These were the late 1980s. Back then, a kid's illusions about his sports heroes were much harder to shatter. There was no social media to lift the veil and let you see the plain truth. Talk radio was fairly sanitary, especially in sleepy little San Diego. The local newspaper may have had harsh words, but those were reserved for upper management—the players, especially Tony, were granted a decorous exemption. So my idolatry continued unchecked. I collected Tony's cards and had a few chance encounters with him over the years, like the time I was introduced to him by my neighbor's ex-husband who happened to be his college roommate. (I told you San Diego was a sleepy little town in those days.) I continued to recite his bio, which I updated to include each passing season, the birth of his kids, his stats, to get myself to sleep. "Tony's son, Anthony Gwynn Jr., was born on …"
In 1988, I wrote a letter to the San Diego Padres, saying I wanted to be a bat boy. I was 13. "Write back when you're 16," they replied. I did, and, miraculously, I got an interview. Utterly lacking the connections that land most bat boys the job, I put together a "résumé" (work experience: mowing lawns; education: 3.67 GPA through 11th grade), letters of reference (from a soccer coach, my fifth-/sixth-grade teacher, and my science teacher), and a personal statement. Somehow, I got the job. My first day of work was March 31, 1991, and I was tasked with unloading the team truck, freshly arrived from spring training in Yuma, Ariz. I spent seven hours that night hauling huge boxes out of a semi truck. I drove home covered in sweat and moths. I loved every minute.
My title was "Bat Boy, San Diego Padres." It was a primo job for a 16-/17-year-old. Free parking pass! Free tickets to every game! Free team ID card! Seats in the dugout for half the game, seats down the foul lines for the other half! None of that mattered—leading up to the season, the only thing I knew was that I was going to be working alongside Tony Gwynn. We were going to be co-workers! If any teammates tried to cut him down, like the treasonous Jack Clark had years before, I'd stand up in the locker room and defend him! We'd become friends! These are the thoughts of a 16-year-old kid about to work within spitting distance of his hero.
You know where this story ends for most kids. They idolize a figure they know from afar, they get an improbable chance to meet the guy, and he turns out to be a bum. He cheats on his wife. He kicks over trashcans. He shouts at clubhouse attendants. My first day at the stadium, I stood getting dressed in my sparkling new uniform in the bat-boy locker area, which was tucked around a corner from the main locker room, and located about 10 feet from the bathroom. Players filed by, most of them ignoring us. Suddenly, he appeared.
"Hey," he said to me, holding out his hand. "I'm Tony. How are you?" Flustered, I stammered, "Uh, nothing much." He laughed.
He laughed! Have you noticed that the tributes to Gwynn all seem to mention his laugh? The man's laughter illuminated the room. "Best sound I've ever heard in my life," ESPN's Chris Berman said in the locker room one day, after I'd sheepishly hauled out my Chris Berman baseball card and asked for his autograph. Somebody—my memory says it was Bruce Hurst—said, "I know that's your rookie card, Chris, 'cause you've got hair in that photo." Tony laughed for the next five minutes straight, literally holding his sides he was laughing so hard. The joke was lame, but who cares? If the payoff is hearing Tony Gwynn laugh for five minutes, I'll sit through anything.
One day, one of the bat boys showed up wearing an earring. Bright gold and massive. The Giants were in town. During batting practice, Will Clark walked by and sneered, "Nice earring, faggot." The words were stunning, but we knew we had to react like it was no big thing. News must've gotten around, though, because before the next game, Tony walked back to the locker room area with Bip Roberts and performed an entire routine for us. They had evidently practiced it during batting practice. They stood lecturing us, using every "how to talk like an older white guy" cliché in the book. "Now listen, son," Tony started, stopping periodically to catch his breath, as he was laughing too hard. "You're bringing down the team here, with that earring." "Very, very unprofessional," Bip added, haughtily. They walked away, howling with laughter, the point made: Will Clark was a dick.
Before one game, early in the season, I stood out in right field during batting practice, arms folded. Tony walked over. "Want to toss?" he asked. Trembling with nervousness, I said, "Yeah," and tried to act like this was nothing to me. My first toss went about 30 feet over his head. He laughed and ran after it. Second toss, only 15 feet over his head. He jogged over to me. "How are you holding that ball?" he asked. I showed him my grip. "Well hell, that's all wrong." A 10-second lesson, and we were good to go. He fired a rocket to me. I fielded it cleanly and threw it back using my new grip. This time only five feet overhead. He laughed again, harder this time. I got myself under control, and we threw for 10 minutes, just us. At one point I stopped, realizing that some kids were watching. They were watching me. They were watching me playing catch with Tony Gwynn. I could read their thoughts: "That kid is so lucky." I was. On my way back to the clubhouse, one of the kids, some poor 6-year-old totally overcome by the moment, asked me for my autograph. I signed his program. Tony watched. He laughed the whole time.
I wonder what it must be like to know that you have a destabilizing effect on people. Some people use this knowledge to their own benefit. The Padres' catcher that season, Benito Santiago, was a renowned curmudgeon—that's a polite way to say he was a complete and unrepentant asshole—and he relished his bad reputation. "You can tell the manager that he may suck Benito's ass," he told me one day when I brought around a dozen baseballs the manager wanted signed for a charity auction. "Um," I told the manager, "Benito was busy."
Tony went the other way—he knew he had a profound effect on us, and he embraced it. He talked to us. He asked us about classes. He asked us if we were dating anybody. (Hey, Tony, I never told you this, but that girl I told you about, the one I said I really liked but who didn't like me back? We've been married for 12 years. We've got two kids. You were right.)
The last homestand of the season, Tony's official Nike catalog showed up in our locker one day, with a note in his familiar handwriting. "Pick a pair," the note said. We each happily circled a pair with the pen he provided. Later that week, before a game, the shoes appeared in our locker, along with a check for $500 for each of us. I didn't even care about the money itself—THIS WAS A HANDWRITTEN CHECK FROM TONY GWYNN. ADDRESSED TO ME. (I think I waited five months to cash that damn check. When I did, the bank teller's eyes got big and she looked down at the check, up at me, down at the check.) A few games after the shoes appeared, the equipment manager, our boss, told us: "You know, Tony drove down to Foot Locker himself and bought those shoes for you guys. You probably thought he had them delivered or something. But he went down there. That's what he does."
When kids have heroes, they tend to build them up into something unsustainable, something doomed to crumble, and years later, as adults, they look back on the their old enthusiasms with gentle condescension. On Monday, I turned on my computer and the words "Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn dies at 54" hit me square in the chest. I lost my breath for a minute. In that instant, dozens, hundreds of memories of Tony flashed through my mind. And each one remains good, clean, and perfect in its own way.
Here's one: I was 12 or 13, hanging out near the player's parking lot after the game, waiting for autographs. Tony was the big "get," and I sat there for a good three hours after the game. Suddenly, he appeared. He looked so normal, wearing jeans and a polo shirt. He walked over to his truck, a 4x4 with PADRE19 as the license plate. "Tony! Tony!" I and a few other die-hards shouted. He walked over cheerfully and signed stuff we could fit through the fence. He signed my baseball card and handed it back to me. "Tony," I said. "Thank you." He looked right back at me: "You're welcome." That killed me. It still kills me. It was the simplest gesture; it was the kindest.
David Johnson was born in San Diego in 1974, spent the 1991 season as a bat boy for the San Diego Padres, went to college in Minnesota, and has been slowly drifting back West ever since. He currently divides his time between Portland and Eugene, Ore. (Go Ducks!), where he toils in the salt mines of academia.