After hearing of the tragic passing of Padres Hall of Fame legend Tony Gwynn following his battle with cancer on Monday, I thought I would reflect on the beloved Padre and share a more intimate side of the birth (literally) of a family obsessed with the Padres baseball and Mr. Padre himself. A day later, undoubtedly, you have heard a plethora of ridiculous numbers that are almost impossible to fathom. Seriously, even after memorizing most of them, I still cannot believe them when shared by numerous national sports analysts.
Tony Gwynn was a name in my family’s household before he was a legend and a Hall of Famer; frankly, it was before I could talk, let alone bloviate all things Padres. Growing up, my heroes were my dad and Tony Gwynn. Where I grew up, right-handed Little Leaguers turned around to the left side when playing Wiffle Ball and tried tirelessly to pepper the ball through the 5.5 hole, or “beyond the planter and past the fence,” while yelling “I got dibs on Tony!” If you were a neighborhood kid and you didn’t know who Tony Gwynn was, my dad was sure to sit you down for a memorable lecture on the history of baseball and proceed as if he was your collegiate professor. The schooling was on and class was in session, and you were about to find out who the greatest hitter in baseball was — a “Padre” he adamantly emphasized.
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Here’s a family story about Mr. Padre that should shed some light into the inception of the Koke family and Padres baseball fanaticism. My parents moved from Denver to San Diego in 1979, and my dad immediately became an obsessed Padres fan. My folks bought the Cox Cable Padres package every year. Baseball was a big part of our lives, and we followed the Padres with fanatic attention.
In May of 1986, my mother was expecting her third child. On the afternoon of May 23, my mother knew she was going into labor, but the Padres game was on, and it was understood we would watch the game. Yes, it was like going to church.
The Padres were playing the Mets, and the San Diego roster included:
Toward the end of the game, for very obvious reasons, my mom decided it might be a good idea to leave for the hospital. She called the Dr. and said “we are coming in.” When my dad heard her on the phone, he said, “Are you kidding? It’s the bottom of the ninth, we are tied, Tony’s up and we’re not going into extra innings!” My mom dutifully called the Dr. back and told him they decided to stay home a bit longer. Mr Padre, our hero, immediately hit a home run off Mets closer Jesse Orosco with two on and won the game, making sure my mother did not have to deliver my baby brother Brian at home. My mom often joked, “I probably should have named him Tony.” Suffice it to say, another fanatical Padres fan was born.
This is just one example of the impact Tony Gwynn had on us and how we viewed “T” as an extended part of the family.
Tony Gwynn was the epitome of doing things the right way — unparalleled work ethic, selflessness with fans young and old, unbelievable sacrifice and leading by example. A legend and Hall of Famer on the baseball diamond and as a person. With his infectious laugh and his childlike smile, he played as if he was a 12-year-old having fun playing Little League at Jack Murphy Stadium, aka The Q or Qualcom Stadium.
Not often do you see such an exemplary measure of greatness. He used every bit of the God-given talent that was bestowed upon him. T was and will always be San Diego sports. He was a true student of the game and a revolutionary in using video to hone his craft, a process that changed the game we all love.
While I was named after a Yankees legend (my dad’s favorite player, Mickey Mantle), I carried my love for the game and passion for such a beautiful sport with my favorite player, idol and hero by growing up watching one of the best pure baseball hitters of all time in Tony Gwynn.
More importantly, he was someone to truly idolize on and off the field. If there’s a heaven, Mr. Padre has a first-class ticket to the Hall of Fame in the sky.
My family, San Diego and baseball will miss you, #19.