BY PETE BROWN
My first glimpse of Tony Gwynn came in June 1981, the season-opener of the Walla Walla Padres Northwest League baseball team. Even in that first game, I realized that the Padres had something special in Gwynn, who had been assigned to Walla Walla after being drafted in the third round out of San Diego State.
As it turned out, I only had about seven weeks to watch him play. After 43 games with the Rookie League, Class A, short-season team, he was called up to Amarillo in the Class AA Texas League. What a seven weeks it was. By the time he left, Gwynn led the Northwest League in nearly every offensive category, including batting average (.331), stolen bases (17), and home runs (12). Even though he played only part of that season for Walla Walla, he was voted the league MVP at the end of the season.
I attended many games that season and still have an official 1981 Walla Walla Padres program (price 50 cents) autographed by Tony. I made a note that the game of the program (on July 5, 1981) was won by the Padres 5-4 on a three run walk off home run by Tony Gwynn in the bottom of the ninth inning. I recognize many of the names on my scorecard from that game, played against the Bellingham Mariners, including Phil Bradley and Rickey Nelson, who later played with the Seattle Mariners. Not on my scorecard but also on the Bellingham roster that year was Mark Langston. On the Padres side of the scorecard, I recognize Gwynn, John Kruk and Greg Booker as future major-leaguers. Gwynn is listed at 5 feet 11, and 185 pounds, and John Kruk at 5-10 and 175.
At the end of the 1981 season, the Walla Walla Padres held what they called a “bat scramble”. All the cracked bats from the season were put in a big pile near second base, and kids in the stadium were allowed to line up along the first-base line. When the whistle blew, the kids ran toward the pile of bats and could grab as many as they could carry back to the stands. My 12-year-old and 10-year-old sons each came away with three or four cracked bats inscribed with “Genuine Walla Walla Padres Louisville Slugger”. Most of the bats have long since been taped up, used for batting practice, re-broken and discarded. The exception was one of the bats my 10-year-old won. He said that he had already secured three bats and was in a final tug of war with “a great big kid” over a final bat when he looked down at the nob of the bat and saw that it was inscribed in magic marker with “T. Gwynn”. He gave one more “tremendous tug”, and the bat came loose. He hauled his prized possession back to the stands.
In 1988, while I was living in Portland, I had lunch in Seattle with a business acquaintance named John. The conversation turned to baseball, as it often did with me, and I mentioned that Tony Gwynn was my favorite player.
“I played on the same Little League team with Tony Gwynn growing up in San Diego,” John said. “And I’m the reason that Tony Gwynn is now an outfielder!”
I asked John to explain, and he said he had been a 10-year-old veteran on the team when Tony joined the team at age 9. The coach had asked Tony what position he would like to play, as he did with all new players. The new kid responded that he was left-handed and played first base. The coach explained that John also was left-handed and had played first base the previous year.
“Tony, why don’t you go out and try center field?” the coach said.
In 1990 while I still lived in Portland, Tony Gwynn was the “autograph guest” at a local card show. I took the “T. Gwynn” Walla Walla Padres bat and a 1983 Topps Gwynn Rookie Card to the card show and purchased autograph tickets. Tony stopped everything when he came to sign the bat, talking for at least 10 minutes after hoisting the bat and looking it over.
“This is the real thing, and it’s so much bigger than the little toothpick of a bat I use in the major leagues to increase my bat speed and give me better bat control,” he said. “The Walla Walla folks never asked us what size bat we wanted. They just said, ‘Here is your bat – hit.’ ”
Tony was such an engaging, outgoing guy that it further cemented him as my favorite player.
Fast forward to Seattle in 2001 when the All-Star Game was played at Safeco Field. I was living in Seattle and had been lucky enough to win two tickets to all of the All-Star Game events including the player banquet the night before the game. Ichiro had arrived in Seattle and wound up winning the American League Rookie of the Year and MVP awards with the Mariners. At the All-Star break, he was the leading vote getter for a starting spot in the American League outfield. Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn, both in their final seasons, were honored before the game for their outstanding careers.
At the large buffet dinner the night before the All-Star Game, I kept my eye out for both Ichiro and Tony Gwynn, since attendees could hobnob with the players during the outdoor meal held at a restaurant along the pier. Ichiro needed a police escort to get him past the crowds who were hanging around the entrance to the restaurant, and he ended up eating inside in a private room, so I never had a chance to meet him and tell him that he had become a new “favorite player”. I spotted Tony, though, and introduced myself, congratulated him on a great career, and told him that I had seen him play in Walla Walla.
Tony asked me where I was living now, and I replied Seattle.
“I’ll bet everyone in Seattle is having a great time watching Ichiro hit,” he said. “He is a fantastic talent and has a unique approach!”
Tony Gwynn died June 16, but I’ll never forget watching him play in his first professional games, and those encounters with him years later. What a positive person, a classy human being and a great ambassador for the game of baseball.
Pete Brown, 72, is a lifelong sports nut who is retired and lives in Seattle with his wife. He graduated from Dartmouth College and has had stints at playing, coaching and officiating a variety of sports, as well as being a high-school Math teacher, college dean of admissions and selling sports cards and memorabilia.
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