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16 June, 2014

Remembering Tony Gwynn

  I had the great honor of working with Tony Gwynn on a few occasions and on the day of his passing, I wanted to share a few stories from those occurrences.

  In 2002, Tony came to ESPN to do some part-time work as a game analyst and an analyst on Baseball Tonight. I was the Coordinating Producer of BBTN at the time. On Tony's first day we began our show meeting with the usual banter about the days games, things we should be talking about on the show that night, etc. The Baseball Tonight meetings were always lively. Whether it was the former player or manager telling stories or the staff debating the hot topics, the meeting was never dull.
   On this day the topic switched to a hitter who was struggling and Tony said something like, "well, his hands are all messed up. He needs to fix that."
   "What do you mean?" someone asked.
   Tony then began describing how the player's wrists weren't cocked properly. He held up his hands to show proper alignment, what poor alignment looked like and how that impacts the contact a hitter makes. The room was silent. It was like everyone's mouths had been taped shut. Not a peep. After a few moments Tony realized how much the decibel level in the room had dropped. He paused, put his head down and then said, "Sorry. I didn't mean to bore everyone." A few of us chuckled and I spoke up, "Tony," I said, "We are not bored. No one ever silences this room but you did because you have us eating out of the palms of your hands. If you say those kinds of things on TV, you'll be fine."
   When the meeting was over everyone in the room looked at each other with a "I can't believe I get to come to work and learn about hitting from Tony Gwynn!" grin on their face.
    As we got closer to show time, Tony was terrified. We weren't sure if he was going to go on. We were stunned. This sure-fire Hall of Famer who had been the greatest pure hitter of recent vintage had stage fright. My boss, Jay Levy, convinced Tony that it would be fine  and it was. Tony went on and the show was smooth. I'm sure years later he had long forgotten that day,  but no one else in the show meeting that afternoon ever will.

   Flash-forward to July, 2007 and I am in Cooperstown to help produce the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. That year featured Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn. Kind of a big deal. I re-introduced myself to Tony at our production meeting the day before the ceremonies. I had done six inductions before that one and had made a habit of asking the inductees this question, "So, when you get on the bus tomorrow morning to ride over from the hotel to the ceremonies with the all those Hall of Famers, what will that ride be like?"
    Tony looked at me a little wide-eyed at the thought that had not occurred to him. He kind of giggled his famous giggle and simply said, "Awesome."
   The next morning Tim Kurkjian told me that he had run into Tony Gwynn Jr and asked him how his dad was feeling. Tony Jr said to Tim, "At 10 o'clock in the morning he asked me to go get him a beer... and he doesn't drink."

   Tony's speech was heartfelt. Contrary to Ripken who had scripted his speech and even included a stunt to present his wife with a rose, Gwynn spoke off the cuff. He remembered family and friends and everyone who helped him along the way. He told stories about teammates and expressed his admiration for Jackie Robinson and those who helped pave the way. He was humble and humbled by the moment.

    Tony Gwynn's career started when I was 15, right in my sports-loving wheelhouse.
Even back in the pre-internet dark days, everyone knew about Gwynn and his potential when he came up.  Back then the Braves played in the NL West with San Diego and their games were on TBS, so whenever Atlanta played San Diego, it was a chance to watch Tony play. What a treat.
In his first full season in the majors he hit .351. He stole 33 bases and struck out 23 times. That's right. 23. In 675 plate appearances. 23. His teammate that year, Bruce Bochy, struck out 21 times... in 97 plate appearances. The man never struck out more than 40 times in a season. In 20 seasons! Watching him hit was a joy. He was a master at his craft. On top of all that, he was also a really nice man with an infectious laugh and a love for the game as great as anyones.

  For more on just how amazing Gwynn was, check out Jayson Stark's column