Wednesday, January 10, 2007

This Is Not the Greatest Post in the World; This is Just a Tribute

We've taken a bit of a Holiday break here at the Pretzel Factory (and all two of you are upset): we know, we know. Drink some Johnnie Walker and down some pills, and it'll all be OK.

Truth is, for one half of this enterprise, it's been a rough couple of weeks. Your team losing a playoff spot at home in overtime to a team they should beat is bad enough; that same team losing its young, talented, starting cornerback in a drive-by later that same night is something that will knock you off your blogging high-horse for a while. Whether it wa
s not wanting to, or having nothing particularly witty or constructive to say, the writer in me didn't feel much like writing.

Until now. Even though it was virtually a lock, and I arranged for a hotel over a month ago, yesterday it became official: my namesake, and erstwhile Favorite Player Growing Up, Tony Gwynn, was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Yet no matter how happy the news made me, all I heard about on the sports talk shows and TV shows was: will Mark McGwire ever get in? Are the reporters just sending Big Mac a message? How the hell does a writer from the Daily Southtown get a Hall of Fame vote, and is he just trying to get some publicity by not turning in his votes?

You know what? I don't care.

People ask me why I'm a San Diego Padres fan who grew up in Denver. The answer is, surprisingly, obvious. The Colorado Rockies didn't come into existence until I was 14, far after any red-blooded young American boy has already made his professional allegiances. But my dad was a huge Braves fan, and we got cable just so he could get TBS and watch his team. Well, one day when I was about 7, the Braves were playing the Padres. My da
d and I were watching, and he said something to the effect of, "Hey, you should watch this rightfielder, Tony Gwynn. He plays the same position as you, he hits the same as you."

And that was that. You follow a player, you follow a team. And I was a young rightfielder with minimal power, who made contact and sprayed the ball all over the field. It seemed like a young David Foster Wallace reading Kurt Vonnegut for the first time. (OK, maybe not so much.) But even when I grew up to be a first baseman/third baseman/pitcher, I still decidedly lacked power. So I had to hit like the Best Hitter Since Ted Williams (SI said it, so it must be true). And, to top it off, I got "19" in roman numerals tattooed on my forearm. It was his number; now it's mine, too. And some variation of his name, team, and number is my password for just about everything on the planet.

True, he didn't hit for much power. But he decided, at some point, that he'd rather hit .350 with 9 homers than .300 with 25 homers. He could still drive in runs, and he always got on base because he struck out about once every paycheck. And he didn't win a World Series, either - he just had the misfortune of going up against two of the best teams of the last quarter-century in the '84 Tigers and '98 Yankees.

And, hey, maybe later in his career he became as infatuated with the fried donuts as with the doughnuts that go over his bat. Yet I don't have to tell you that he won 5 Gold Gloves in his younger days, stole 56 bases in 1987, and still holds the San Diego St. record for assists. In basketball.

The man could ball. And yet, on his most glorious of days, all anybody wanted to talk about was a creatine-bloated slugger with 4 1/2 times as many home runs as Gwynn but barely more than half the hits, and whether or not Cal Ripken, Jr. deserved to go down as the third-best player of all-time, as his vote percentages indicate. The man who wielded his tiny bat like a paintbrush, who used the entire field as his canvas? Who demanded the respect of none other than the Splendid Splinter himself? Yeah, he's a nice guy. But what does the McGwire vote hold for Bonds in a few years?

It's unfair, but that's what you get. To go with the above literary metaphor, Gwynn indulged in nothing but the Breakfast of Champions throughout his career (practice, research, love of the game), yet in the end will be, as always, relegated to the shadows in baseball's version of Infinite Jest.

Like the hole between the third baseman and the shortstop where Gwynn always tried to line a hard single, we can just call this Slaughterhouse-5.5.

That may sound bitter, but in the end, I'll always remember May 4, 1996. Padres at Rockies, Coors Field. A buddy and I go down a couple hours early, and cruise down to the right-centerfield wall. There he is, signing autographs, smiling, being cordial. Finally he comes to me, and - of course - I had forgotten a card or something else epic for him to sign. So I produce a piece of calendar paper that has "19" at the top. He signs it, and I wish him a happy birthday. (His birthday is May 9.) Taken aback, he kind of looks at me for a second, like it's strange that one of his fans would think that much of him, to remember his birthday. I even told him I'd send him a card, which I never did.

Well, now I'm saying Congratulations, Mr. Gwynn. I'll be there on July 30, cheering you on. And I may even have a belated birthday card for you, too.

4 comments:

Steve Garvey said...

what am i, chopped liver?

John said...

Great post. I got very tired of the "McGwire doesn't get in" coverage, too.

You'd better send that card, man...he's probably been crying himself to sleep for years wondering if it got lost in the mail, or what.

Great blog name, too...the Harry Shearer impersonation rocks, and that scene kills me...

Anonymous said...

Great post, came here from Deadspin. Tony Gwynn is the man; I still remember the one baseball card picture I had of him when I was younger in mid-swing. Thanks for giving him some appreciation.

Anonymous said...

... but it might be the greatest Tony Gwynn post ever. I've watched only a handful of Padres games in my life (east coast, AL), but I've long believed that Gwynn's the best left-handed hitter since Ted Williams.