The baseball world learned today the sad news that one of its great ambassadors had passed away at fifty-four. A legendary hitter whose career average of .338 places eighteenth on the all-time list, Gwynn garnered 3,141 hits over his remarkable twenty year career. His prodigious feats with the lumber were a reflection of his incredible bat control, further evidenced by his never striking out more than forty times in a season.
But what made Tony truly special was the manner in which he carried himself on and off the field. For all his accomplishments he never displayed an air of arrogance – that fatal flaw that plagues so many superstar athletes today. He paired his genuine humility with an unbridled enthusiasm for the game, as demonstrated by his persistent (and contagious) smile. He was a role-model parents could be excited about their kids emulating because he not only showed young boys and girls how to play baseball exceptionally well, he showed them how to treat others and conduct themselves off the field.
The most special sports memory I have occurred in August of 1999 in Montreal. Gwynn’s Padres were playing the Expos in a game one might have assumed carried no significance judging from the several thousand fans in attendance. But something historic happened that night. Tony Gwynn knotted his three thousandth hit and in typical fashion did so on a punch-and-judy single between short and third. The limited number of fans present for that memorable achievement might have hastened baseball’s decision to relocate the Expos (how can a city reasonably expect to keep a franchise when its citizens have no interest in experiencing baseball history).
Tony Gwynn is one of three all-time favorite baseball players for me. His legendary talent in the batter’s box and his exemplary behavior off the field made him a true ambassador for baseball. The combination of exceptional talent and modest graciousness is difficult to find in any profession but especially so in the world of professional sports. We may never see another athlete embody that combination the same way again.