The first thing you heard was the high-pitched voice, piercing above all others in the room. And then the cackle. It was unmistakable.
The scene was the National League clubhouse on the day before the 1997 All-Star Game at then-Jacobs Field in Cleveland. I had covered a World Series and several playoff games but I had never been to the Midsummer Classic until that day, the first time I ever encountered Tony Gwynn.
Gwynn, who died of cancer Monday at the far-too-young age of 54, loved the All-Star Game. He loved hitting. And, as I quickly confirmed after being told by others, he loved talking baseball.
In ‘97, remember, interleague play had just started. Gwynn had been an NL lifer and he wanted nothing more than to beat the AL at its shiniest new park. He was a throwback in a modern era where players are not big fans of the game, even with World Series homefield advantage attached.
Gwynn was sitting at his locker and there were maybe a dozen of us standing around him. He chatted about trading tips with Ted Williams and Stan Musial, about how he overcame the fact he never hit for much power.
He talked about “the 5.5 hole” -- where he loved to shoot grounders the other way between the third baseman and shortstop, who are Nos. 5 and 6, respectively, on your scorecard. It was fascinating stuff.
I asked Gwynn about his affinity for the All-Star Game and his smile got bigger. Here’s what he said:
“Man, this is the most legitimate all-star game any sport has, any sport. The NBA game is fun but they don’t play a lot of defense. Same with hockey. And who really watches the Pro Bowl? Do you? Does anybody?
“Getting the adrenaline going will be easy. We are here to win. It’s not just about going to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame or going to the gala and doing a jig. The first day you get to town, guys do a lot of hob-nobbing. Come tomorrow, all that changes.”
As it turned out, the National League didn’t win the game. The AL won, 3-1, thanks to a home run by hometown hero and former San Diego teammate Sandy Alomar Jr. Gwynn was 0 for 3.
Not many 0-fer days in the career of one of the greatest pure hitters of our lifetime. As the tributes flowed in Monday, I was struck to read his Hall of Fame plaque online and note it began with this description: “An artisan with a bat.”
That’s just perfect.
Gwynn’s numbers are crazy. He had 3,141 career hits and topped .350 six times. No one has done that since Josh Hamilton in 2010. Gwynn retired in 2001 with a .338 career average — the highest in 62 years. He batted .394 in the strike-shortened 1994 season, and I bet that will last a long time as the closest we’ll see anybody get to .400.
There were 82,000 in Cooperstown for his Hall of Fame induction in 2007. He went in with Cal Ripken Jr.. two guys from small markets. There’s never been a bigger crowd. Shows how beloved they both were. In 1999, it was Gwynn who held up Williams by the left arm as The Splendid Splinter made his memorable first pitch prior to the All-Star Game in Fenway Park. The previous year, Gwynn played his first-ever games in Yankee Stadium — in the World Series.
Ten years later, in July of 2008, Gwynn was in a New York hotel ballroom filled with recent Hall of Famers. It was the morning of the All-Star Game, the final one to be played in the old park in the Bronx.
There were all kinds of interview opportunities that morning and I’m still stunned only about 50 reporters were in the room for that hour. I talked to Hank Aaron and Tommy Lasorda. To Goose Gossage, Dave Winfield and Wade Boggs. And I heard a voice from a back corner again over the din, just like that day in Cleveland.
It was Gwynn talking about Ichiro Suzuki with a lone Japanese reporter, about how Ichiro’s unusual style was a talking point among the Hall of Famers who figured no one could duplicate it. I went over to listen and the reporter asked if Ichiro was a “machine” at the plate.
“Machine’s inference makes it sound easy and it’s not,” Gwynn said with that big smile. “It’s very difficult. But when you’re consistent with your approach, then I guess we make it look easy. But definitely not easy.”
Gwynn said it intrigued him how young players were gravitating to Ichiro, now that he had become a veteran in the major leagues.
“That’s the beauty of the game, that as time passes on, young guys become veteran guys,” Gwynn said. “And those veteran guys have to put their arms around a young guy, much like some veteran guy did to them. That’s why I loved All-Star Games.”
I asked Gwynn about playing that ‘98 World Series in Yankee Stadium and he recalled everything, starting with his trip to Monument Park with his son, Tony Jr., then a 16-year-old and now a 31-year-old Phillies outfielder.
“Everybody is headed to the locker room and my son and I went the other way and we went to the monuments,” he said. “… I remember telling my son, ‘My God, you can feel it. You can feel the history.’ And little things like Bob Sheppard saying my name in introductions, that’s part of Yankee Stadium.”
Gwynn said he recalled both of the Padres’ losses in that series in vivid detail, but appreciated the visit much more than many of his teammates who had spent time in the American League and played many games in the Bronx.
“It has a history, it just has a feel,” Gwynn said. “For me, it was the sense of history, the guys who played there before.”
Baseball history will never forget Tony Gwynn either. There’s one statue at San Diego’s Petco Park. It’s Gwynn in his famous hitting pose, with a plaque that says “Mr. Padre.”
The ballpark’s address? It’s 19 Tony Gwynn Drive. So appropriate.