One of the greats of my lifetime died today.
I immediately thought of one of the most memorable times I interviewed him. It was when I was a young reporter for CNN Sports. During spring training, of course, we would crash every Major League camp with multiple stories on the agenda. The key issues of the spring, the season, the game. That’s the way we worked, pooling together our reporters and producers to get a broad range of input on the journalism we did in those days.
Gwynn knew we usually wanted to talk more than baseball, and he was so thoughtful, professional and accountable as a spokesman for his game, his craft, his profession, I never recall him saying no. I vaguely remember there were some serious issues we were talking about, though I can’t remember And of course, the baseball stories of the spring, whatever those were.
After the day’s workouts in Peoria, Arizona where both the Padres and Mariners trained, Gwynn was still there. In fact, he wanted to wait until the end of the day, some time in the late afternoon. The rest of the guys were gone. But not Tony. And he showed up, in uniform, when he said he would, probably ten hours after the suited up earlier in the day. He laughed that his tan had come in, so he wanted us to get in the shade. He even knew his lighting. He said “I don’t want you guys to do that thing where the camera makes my face look like a little black dot on top of my uniform.” His voice was unmistakable, his smile present and his laugh unique.
“So Web, what do we want to talk about?” I briefly mentioned the subjects I knew we would want to cover. He had been through this drill before, and realized that if he answered all the questions now, we probably would leave him alone for the rest of the spring – unless new baseball questions came up. I mentioned the four or five topics of the day, and he answered.
In one breath. In one answer. I think he talked for ten minutes or longer without stopping. He went right at the hard question, the easy question, the baseball question. He remembered what I had gone over. I am not sure, but I don’t even think I had to ask him anything else. I’m sure I checked with our producer in the field and our camera guy. Anything else? I’m sure I checked my notes. He covered it. All of it. One sound bite. One answer. One breath. Hilarious and impressive.
All my other memories are similar. He was a pro, he never dodged questions, but he didn’t always let you ask stupid ones. Usually, though, he was just something to watch. I had the chance to watch Tony Gwynn take a lot of batting practice. I had the chance to watch Paul Molitor take a lot of batting practice. I watched Rod Carew teach a lot of batting practice. I learned.
Tony Gwynn died today. He was 54-years-old, two years older than me. What he left behind is humbling. He loved what he did. He loved his fans. He loved to compete. And he loved to teach. I may not have had a Hall of Fame career, but today, in thinking of Tony Gwynn, I am reminded what “putting on the uniform every day” is all about. I think I will take a few swings, in his honor.
Thanks Tony, for teaching me to be a pro.
As a footnote: of the hundreds of stories I did for CNN alone, I probably interviewed him a dozen times but for some reason I can’t find any of those in my archives. I will keep looking and if I find one, I will post it later.