Thinking about Tony: Shoes, Parents and Planes
Many of the things I remember most fondly about Tony Gwynn have nothing to do with his record-setting achievements on the field.
They came in private moments away from the action when Tony was Tony, which was being a guy you’d like to know even if he wasn’t a Hall of Fame baseball player.
Let’s start with the ground and work up.
One of the perks of being a baseball player is the shoes. Baseball players don’t have to take care of their playing cleats. After each game, clubhouse attendants gather up the shoes at every locker. They clean the shoes and polish the shoes.
Tony Gwynn did his own shoes. I always thought that said a lot for the man. Not only that, when he was on the disabled list at times during his career, Gwynn could be found in the clubhouse during games helping clubhouse attendants.
Some believed Gwynn’s habit of polishing his own shoes before every game was one of those superstitious rituals that many ballplayers have.
We talked about the shoes once. We talked about the shoes and the fact that once Gwynn was finished with his shoes each day, he’d return to his cubicle, sit on his stool and wrap the handles of his bats – eight perfectly spaced twists with a specific black tape.
“Now, that’s superstition,” Gwynn laughed about the wrapping. “It has to be perfect and with the same tape. If I see it’s off anywhere, I gotta start over. I drive myself crazy. I know it doesn’t really make a difference, but it does . . . in my head it has to be perfect or I don’t feel comfortable. My fingers have to fit perfectly inside the tape. Crazy.”
But the shoes weren’t a superstition.
His cleats were an extension of his father. Charles Gwynn taught his sons at an early age to take pride in themselves.
“He’d look at our clothes and shoes every day,” Tony once recalled. “He didn’t make us polish our shoes, well, he did. But it was more than the shoes. It was doing it the right way, every day. You polished your own shoes. And when I polished my shoes every day in the clubhouse, I’d think of him and my mom.”
Tony was so many things that fans didn’t see, but probably knew.
He was among the first to arrive at the ballpark each day and among the last to leave. He spent countless hours in batting cages by himself with a pitching machine. He’d shag his own balls. He’d watch films of himself and opposing pitchers. Even during games, if he felt his swing was off, he’d grab a batting tee and retreat to a vacant corner in search of answers.
At the end of a long day, it wasn’t unusual for Tony and Alicia Gwynn to view film of Tony’s swing. She sometimes saw things before I did,” said Tony.
“By nature, I’m a perfectionist,” he once said. “But I’m not very good at knowing how to do that. My mom and dad taught me the importance of dedication and attention to detail. Only by looking in a mirror can you really answer the question of ‘Am I giving it my all?’”
Like all of us, Tony had likes and dislikes.
He loved baseball. But he hated all the travel associated with the game. He wasn’t afraid to fly, but he didn’t like it. That’s one of the reasons why he wanted to coach baseball at San Diego State rather than become a national television commentator.
“I always loved riding buses with teammates,” he once said. “You learn a lot about people on a bus ride.”
Add the laughter where you think it belongs, which is almost everywhere.
He once recalled being on a baseball bus trip when the vehicle broke down.
“When my feet hit the ground,” Gwynn recalled, “for some reason my first thought was ‘what if that had been a plane?’ That always stuck with me.”
And he loved talking about a particular bus ride in Montreal during the Padres pennant-winning 1998 season.
“We landed early in the morning and all the bus driver needed to do was get us to the hotel. He couldn’t find it. It seemed like we drove around for an hour as its beginning to get light. Suddenly we see this kid walking along the street. We tell the bus driver to stop and ask the young man for directions.
“The guy gets on the bus and leads us right to the hotel, which was about two turns away from where he had been circling. The kid starts to get off the bus and we stop him. Every player getting off the bus gives the kid a $20 bill, a $50 dollar bill . . . whatever.
“One of my worst nights became one of the greatest memories. Hey, we’re the Padres.”