Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Talkin' Baseball

In any case, it’s unfortunate that the McGwire controversy will taint the elections of Ripken and Gwynn, two of the game’s undisputed good guys. I’ve gotten to do some amazing things in my Forrest Gump-like life, and one of them was talking hitting with Tony Gwynn, a lifetime .338 hitter.

Around 1994 I was covering a Cardinals/Padres game for KFNS in St. Louis. After the game, as we reporters streamed into the clubhouse, I spotted Tony Gwynn getting dressed in front of his lockers. No reporters had gotten to him yet. I nervously strolled over to introduce myself and get a few comments for my tape recorder. But Gwynn was such a genial, likeable, enthusiastic guy, I decided to try to have a full-blown conversation with him.

Seizing the moment, I skipped the incidental information about that night's particular game and started asking him about the science of hitting. He lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. Hitting the baseball was Tony Gwynn’s passion, and I got the sense he’d talk about it all night if you wanted to. I asked him about bats, about the use of video in preparing for hitters, about training, and on and on. Of course, I heard about half of what he said. Mostly I heard a running loop in my mind saying, “I’m standing here talking to Tony Gwynn about hitting! I’m going to be able to tell my grandchildren about this someday!” Other reporters began gathering around to get quotes from Gwynn regarding the actual game that had been played that night. As my line of conversation continued, they began to get annoyed. “Hey, c’mon, we’re on deadline here!” they started grousing. Gwynn ignored them and kept talking about hitting. He treated me like I was the only guy in the room.

After about 15 full minutes, I finally gave way to the other reporters. I thanked Gwynn for his time and excused myself. “I enjoyed it,” he said. And I think he really meant it.

By the mid-90’s, there were a lot of jerks in baseball. There were guys after only money, and guys (like Bonds) who practically walled themselves off from the media and even their own teammates. But Tony Gwynn was a guy who decided to take less money to play in one town--his hometown--his whole career. And he was a guy who, even in the middle of a Hall of Fame career, was willing to sit with some dope reporter after a game and just talk about hitting. Today Tony Gwynn was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot, garnering 97.6% of the votes. There’ve perhaps others who have been as deserving, but I don’t think there’s ever been anyone more deserving of the Hall of Fame than Tony Gwynn.

(And for what it’s worth, tomorrow I’m going to make an argument for someone to go to the Hall who is being severely overlooked. And it’s not any of the people you think. He's not even on the ballot anymore.)

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