San Diego and the San Diego Padres lost an icon today. And my son lost a hero.
When my kids were little, they dabbled in lots of interests. Soccer. Karate. Music. Lots of interests. But then my son got a little older. His big sisters went to a small private school my husband and I helped found. The Gwynns had their kids enrolled there. One day when we were working at the school, Tony was working too. My son, barely three years old, saw Tony. At that moment, for no apparent reason, Michael became laser focused on baseball, and the biggest Tony Gwynn fan!
Michael played Pee Wee baseball, and then Little League. He had some terrific coaches, Godly men who loved baseball and loved coaching these little guys. Unfortunately he had a few rotten coaches, but that’s life. When he was considering trying out for the high school team, the coaches basically told him don’t bother. They were interested in collecting titles, not mentoring boys. But through it all, Michael followed Tony’s career, and collected lots of baseball cards and memorabilia. He knew more about Tony than anyone I’ve ever heard of.
High school was tough for Michael, as it is for lots of kids. During his senior year, lots of things were going wrong for him. One night on the news, I heard that Jeff Cawley, then-sportscaster at Channel 10, was having a promotion – send in your Sports Fantasy and maybe they will make it happen. I encouraged Michael to send in an email. He wrote that he wanted to take batting practice with Tony Gwynn. While he knew the odds were slim, he was hopeful.
One day, I got the call. My son was chosen for one of the segments!! I hung up the phone and screamed my head off! It was as if I had won a million dollars! I called Michael’s cell phone and asked him what he was doing. He said he was going out for lunch with a friend. I asked him if he was driving. He said no, so I went ahead and told him he had won! The Sapp house was electric! We were all so excited for him, because we knew how much this meant to Michael.
Jeff Cawley and a camera man came to the house. After Jeff interviewed Michael and saw his collection, we were driven down to SDSU where Tony was coaching the Aztecs. Michael went to shake hands with him and his hand was shaking. Tony, ever humble, said in the kindest voice, “Don’t be nervous.” I loved him right then. He put Michael somewhat at ease. They went to sit in the dugout, while my husband, my younger daughter, and I leaned on the fence and listened as Michael got to ask Tony some questions. The camera man looked pretty bored. Michael, who’d had his whole life to imaging this moment, asked Tony, “Which hit was your favorite.” Tony said that he was never asked that. Clearly he liked the question. Immediately the camera man got up, picked up his camera, and asked Michael to ask the question again, so he could get it on camera. Michael was a little startled, and Tony just laughed that famous laugh and said that that’s how it went. So Michael asked the question again, and Tony said that the hit he got in the 1998 series in New York was his favorite. I knew the TV Tony Gywnn, the one we all saw at games and on sports shows, but we got a glimpse of the man who chose to be a lifelong Padre – for that one hit, the country saw that he could have played anywhere – he was that good. It wasn’t pride, but certainty, that I saw in his face.
Then they went to the diamond where Tony pitched balls to Michael. Michael, uncharacteristically, missed the first few pitches. I was standing close and watching, and told Michael, “Stop looking at Tony and watch the ball!” He did, and he hit every single ball after that. What a great day it was for my son.
So, Tony was a good man. Kids can have all kinds of heroes and idols. They can want to emulate drug addicts, rock stars, thugs, and gangsters. But I have thanked God any number of times that the man my son followed for the last two decades was a kind man, a good man, a man who loved his wife and kids, a man who loved his job and worked very hard to be great at it, and who gave back to the community.
There’s no crying in baseball. Except today.