I wasn't even a San Diego Padres fan, but I loved Tony Gwynn. The characteristic Gwynn hit was a textbook-perfect laser beam line drive in the gap, to right or left. Many times for a double. He was a line drive machine, and not only could he do it on the field, but he could explain the mechanics of it in such a clear, easy-to-follow way even a dope like I could understand. Analyzing videos of his swing. Thinking and theorizing, planning, always working to get better. Tony Gwynn was a true genius of baseball, up there with Ted Williams in terms of the scientific understanding of hitting. When those two guys would show up on TV and get to chattering away about it, well... I found that fascinating stuff.
There are few things I enjoy more than watching people who are skilled at their craft or art doing it and doing it well. I enjoy those same people talking about that craft almost as much. Williams could bark out a few truisms about hitting boldly, but I never got the feeling he cared if you understood or not. He'd rather spend his time talking with Gwynn, who could grasp what it was all about and keep up with him, the somewhat impatient Splendid Splinter. Gwynn would respond in a gentler, calmer way that complemented Williams' larger-than-life persona. To listen to Gwynn was to hear a man expressing an enthusiasm or love for hitting, for baseball, for the game and sport in such a way it rubbed off on the listener. It would make me excited about the possibilities of perfection. The guy made me happy to be a baseball fan. He loved to talk it up. I'm reading a column while writing this where the reporter says he often walked away from Gwynn with more material than he needed.
An accessible, down-to-earth genius. A fun guy to watch play, a fun guy to listen to. One of the truly nice guys in baseball. I wanted him to hit .400. Every year he came close, it drove me crazy with anticipation. He wasn't even on my favorite team, but I rooted for him. So much so, when I first had disposable income, I went out and bought his rookie card inside one of those hard plastic or Lucite or whatever holders, the kind that screws together.
For some reason, I wasn't even aware he'd been having health troubles. Guess he dropped off my radar after I moved to Japan. I regret that. His passing was a complete surprise, a punch right in the heart at breakfast this morning. I suppose I just expected to hear from Gwynn for years to come, whenever someone excelled at baseball and drove people to make comparisons. He'd break it down for us. We'd come away a bit more knowledgeable about the game. The science of it. The art of it.
Going to miss you, Mr. Gwynn.