When I visited with him two years ago in Cooperstown, New York, I suspected the day would come sooner than later. Tony Gwynn, who lost his battle with cancer Monday, was obviously in declining health that Thursday night at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
It was the July weekend that Barry Larkin was to be inducted and all living Hall of Famers make a concerted effort to be on hand to welcome the new inductees. Tony’s once angelic face had been whittled into a contorted mask by surgeries to arrest the attack on his salivary glands, spawned he contended to the end by chewing tobacco. But nothing could deform his demeanor or ebullient personality.
Tony was part of a panel assembled to discuss “The Fast Ball.” Among those also invited to talk about how best to dissect baseball’s most fabled pitch were fellow baseball icons Johnny Bench, George Brett, Joe Morgan and Al Kaline.
And then there was me. And a bunch of production guys seated around a table trying to set the lighting for the program which was being taped for a cable channel.
Tony arrived early so he took a seat. The technician next to him was called away and so I was asked to sit in until the rest of the panelists arrived. So what do you do when you’re 11 inches or so away from one of baseball’s best hitters of all time? You talk about San Diego, his home and one of my favorite vacation spots.
I was curious as to whether “World Famous” was still there on the beach at Mission Bay?
“Sure is. Best hamburgers ever” he proclaimed and I wholeheartedly agreed then and to this day.
There was one baseball curiosity though that I had squirreled away for an informal moment just like this. “Tony, how long does it take for you to get over being hit by a pitch?” I wondered.
We’ve all seen guys take one in the ribs or the small of the back or the elbow and then saunter off to first base with only the slightest suggestion of a wince.
“Well, it all depends where you get hit, of course. Fingers, wrist, elbow. They could be sore for a week. Anywhere else, couple days. Three at the most,” he stated as if he was talking about how long a first-class letter takes to reach Alaska.
“How can that be?” I pressed.
“Well when you know you’re going to get it, you just relax and let it roll off”, he explained.
“So,” I interjected, “that old thing about not clenching or tensing your shoulder when you’re getting a shot in the arm is true?”
“Absolutely”, he replied. “Just make yourself as pliable as possible and it doesn’t do nearly as much damage as you might think.”
“But Tony, that is so counter-intuitive. It defies a person’s instincts for self-preservation.”
“You just have to get used to it. Or you’re going to have a problem.”
“And of course,” I observed, “you can’t rub it, can you?”
“Not a chance. That is one of the things that make a Major Leaguer.”
Then one of baseball’s purest swingers offered this appropriate afterthought: “It only really hurts when you go hitless.”
With a .338 lifetime batting average, Tony was seldom faced with that eventuality. A great player, wonderful dad, accomplished coach and all round good guy, Tony at just 54, has left us far too soon but left us with a valuable lesson for baseball and life: “When you know it’s coming, relax and let it just roll off.”