Tony Gwynn, the Ultimate Warrior, and Father’s Day
Tony Gwynn passed away this Monday, after a long battle with cancer. He was only 54.
That’s younger than my dad. That’s hard for me to process. Tony Gwynn was such a giant of my childhood. As much as any other ballplayer, his career spanned my youth; he won his first batting title when I was three, his last when I was sixteen. He was one of those few, rare men – another being Cal Ripkin, Jr. – that showed us all that was right with baseball during an era where everything, it seemed, was irreparably wrong. With apologies to Tom Selleck, Gwynn wasn’t just Mr. Padre, he was Mr. Baseball, in an era when baseball needed it desperately.
The news of Gwynn’s passing, in a way, hit me in the same spot in my soul that got hit when I heard that James Hellwig, pro wrestling’s Ultimate Warrior, had died in April. Hellwig was also 54, and he was also a colossus of my youth.
(Yes yes, pro wrestling’s fake. But I loved it as a kid, and retain an arm’s-length affection toward it as an adult. I look at it as interpretive dance where the participants also hit each other. It takes a rare talent to merge the skills in character acting and raw physical acrobatics required. Sure, it’s fake. You try it.)
As a Twins fan and a Joe Mauer bobo, I often compare Mauer to Tony Gwynn. They’re both atypical hitters for their positions, and among their generation’s greatest contact hitters (Mauer’s 2014 campaign to date notwithstanding). But Gwynn wasn’t just better than Mauer (or anyone else playing today, except maybe Ichiro), he was better than anyone, ever, at what he did. At least anyone I’ve been alive to see play. He never hit 20 home runs in a year, but he never failed to bat .309 any year in which he played full-time for his entire 20 year career, all of which he played with the San Diego Padres. Sports Illustrated once famously called him “The Greatest Hitter Since Ted Williams.” And indeed, in the strike-shortened 1994 season he hit .394 in 110 games, making him
the only player one of a vanishingly few players (thanks Mike!) to make a serious run at .400 since Ted Williams last crested that historic peak in 1941.
Listen, I’m not the kind of guy to waste your time with a bunch of numbers. If you’re reading this, you already know who Tony Gwynn is, and you know what I’m talking about. But at the same time I could do this all day; it’s hard to overstate Gwynn’s impact on the game in the ’80s and ’90s. Again: This man played Major League baseball for 20 years, and he never, not once, hit under .309 for a full season, for 20 years. He made the All Star team 15 times. He got on base at more than a .350 clip every single year for his entire career (excepting his rookie campaign when he played in 54 games and wound up with a .289/.337/.389 slash).
I hate to re-use my superlatives, but there’s no other way to say it: when I was a child, Tony Gwynn was a giant. It’s hard to believe that such a man could die.
Which brings me to my dad. I’m a grown man, and my father’s still a giant to me. He’s been living with multiple sclerosis for forty years. It’s a weird, crappy disease. He’s lived through everything from palsy attacks to breaking his leg because it fell asleep in the truck. He’s the toughest man I’ve ever met. He does maintenance in an apartment building; he could damn well be on a ladder as I write this, the lunatic.
We don’t get to see each other that often, but we got to spend a little bit of Father’s Day together. He nearly cut three fingers off with a band saw last month; he spent a goodly amount of our dinner together complaining about how he can’t fish with one hand. That’s my dad.
My dad turned 60 this year, in the year that Tony Gwynn and the Ultimate Warrior died. It shocked me, that my father could be 60 years old. He’s never even had an age to me before. But it’s true, the old man’s 60 this year. It’s the first time that it occurred to me that I might not have him forever.
You won’t, you know. So take it while you can, every minute of it. Those minutes are the only truly irreplaceable resource you have in your life. They are your life.
Take every moment. Every moment you have with Tony Gwynn, and Ichiro, and Joe Mauer, and the Ultimate Warrior, and your dad. In the end, it’s all you truly have. It’s why we have baseball, and life.
It goes by real fast. Rest in peace, Tony Gwynn. The rest of you, call your father.