Tony, Mom and Me – A Love Story

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Tony Gwynn, eight-time National League Batting Champion, 15-time All Star and 22 seasons with a batting average above .300. And the reason I fell in love with baseball.

I chewed on their names like a thick hardened hunk of bubblegum, letting them roll around my cheeks and teeth and tongue, their gargantuan commencing consonants clicking as I licked my lips from cotton candy delivered directly to my seat as I sat in Jack Murphy Stadium on a spring day in March 1984. Their names – Goose, Garvey and Gwynn.

I perched high on a stadium seat for three hours staring in amazement at the impossible green of the field below, remarking to my mom and dad at least once an inning at the size of the crowds, which numbered more than 30,000, and how that was at least 28,000 more people than I had ever seen in all my life, all in one place, doing one thing – and that was watching the Padres play the Cubs.

Goose, Garvey, Gwynn. I loved them instantly. Goose’s handlebar mustache and fastball on fire, Garvey swinging the bat like the 1980s incarnation of Popeye the Sailor Man and Gwynn, well, he was the one who always seemed to be the difference between a win and a loss.

Goose Gossage, closer for the San Diego Padres.

Goose Gossage, closer for the San Diego Padres.

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Graig Nettles, Steve Garvey and Tony Gwynn, 1984.

Today is Tony Gwynn’s birthday, Sunday is Mother’s Day and as an Owens River girl, I am indebted to both for the joy that baseball and nature have provided in my life.

As a family we often drove all through the starry night from Bishop in the Owens Valley to Lakeside in San Diego’s East County to see my grandparents. When we arrived my attitude tended to the sorrowful; all of my Owens Valley friends went to Disneyland each year and in my narrow world view I felt stuck with my sister, mom and dad in our Chrysler station wagon on Highway 395 with nothing to do. What I didn’t know then was that camping along the way, watching chipmunks and trout, rabbits and deer, was actually something special, an activity that many children today never experience. How I cringe when I think about how many times I told Mom I was bored and didn’t know what to do. How creative my sister Carol and I were when encouraged to play and create our very own world! Mom later coached us in girls’ softball. We wore green t-shirts and thus were christened the “Mean Green Fighting Machine.” We lost every game but for one. We tied the best team.

On those nighttime drives down Highway 395 to San Diego Mom would admonish us to “Go to sleep,” over the cassette tape playing Floyd Cramer. I would sigh and gaze out the window, watching the moon following the station wagon. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I started counting power lines illuminated by the Chrysler’s headlamps. The hulking silhouette of the Sierra Nevada Mountains loomed over the transmission towers and our wagon, guiding us south to what I thought was a paradisiacal landscape of palm trees and eucalyptus forest.

That day the San Diego Padres played the Chicago Cubs and lost, 8 to 5. Despite it being my first baseball game and the rules not being entirely clear to me, I was crushed by the defeat. I hurt on Goose, Garvey and Gwynn’s behalf. I marveled at how I, a mere observer, could experience the loss so personally.

“They’ll win some games, you’ll see,” Dad said. “That’s the Padres, always a pretty decent team, but never the best.” That year they would go on to win the National League Championship against the very team that had left me heartbroken at my first game, the Chicago Cubs. I cheered so hard in front of our television set I thought I’d burst. My euphoria did not last; the Padres went on to lose the 1984 World Series to the Detroit Tigers in painful fashion.

Years later I was at Jack Murphy after a Padres game and saw Tony Gwynn at close range. He was going home in his convertible, waving to the crowd and smiling from ear to ear. I felt his grin land on me, and imagined he was personally happy to see me in the parking lot. Five years later I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area and felt honored to watch him bat for the last time against the San Francisco Giants. I stood in the outfield viewing gallery at Pacific Bell Park, tears flowing down my cheeks. The Giants honored Gwynn with plenty of ceremonial respect, and though the fans all stood to clap for Gwynn, I cheered for both of us. I had graduated college, obtained a job saving animals and come pretty far from that small town in the Owens Valley. Seeing Tony Gwynn feted during his retirement year was about both of us moving on and growing older.

Tony spent his entire career with the Padres and never won a World Series, though he did go twice. I have always felt somewhat responsible, that if I loved him less and let him go to another team, a better team, that he would have had his chance. But it wasn’t up to me. Tony Gwynn  made his mark, entering the Hall of Fame in 2007 and coaching and broadcasting in San Diego ever since his Major League Baseball retirement.

Tony, who continues a battle with cancer, recently told the San Diego Union Tribune last month that he is doing well. Tony, thanks for staying with the Friars. You’re the reason I fell in love with the Padres and baseball.

Mom, thanks for putting up with my impatience over the miles of Highway 395 and for introducing me to baseball and to nature, letting me play at both with freedom and imagination beneath the majestic Sierra.