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By J SWYGART
The dots were slow to connect, but once they did, my unsettled emotional state made a little more sense.
I was sitting on the couch Monday evening, fighting back tears — mostly unsuccessfully — as tributes poured in following the untimely death earlier that day of Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gywnn.
Gwynn, who plied his trade like few before or since, was an eight-time batting champion who racked up 3,141 career hits — 18th on the all-time list — and had career batting average of .338. More than that, he was a class act; one of the sport’s truly good guys.
Gwynn died Monday of oral cancer, a disease he attributed to years of chewing tobacco. He was 54.
Still, my own reaction to Gwynn’s passing gave me pause. Why was this event hitting me so hard? Then the dots started to connect.
I realized the loss of Tony Gwynn was difficult because I love the game of baseball. It’s a passion that borders on addiction, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Then more dots came into focus.
Why is it that baseball has, over the years, become such an important part of my life? The reasons are many and varied, but as dot after dot began to connect, I realized it was my father who first planted the seed and nurtured my love of the game.
That these thoughts were flowing through my head on the day after Father’s Day did not escape my psyche, either. It was appropriate.
Dad was a farmer, working long hours most of the year getting out the crops, tending to them and then harvesting them. But when this little lefthander — with a modicum of talent but a bushel of enthusiasm — asked him to play a little catch at the end of the day, he rarely refused. Fly ball after fly ball was batted my way, and I learned the importance of hitting the cutoff man, throwing to the correct base and being prepared — before a pitch was ever thrown — for what I would do with the ball should it be hit my way.
He rarely saw my Little League or high school games in person — there was too much farm work to be done — but it mattered not. I knew he cared, and I knew I cared because of it.
He also helped me settle on which MLB team I would follow for the rest of my life. Like most kids my age, I was a Yankee fan, primarily because the Bronx Bombers were on TV every Saturday (CBS owned the team) and because they seemingly were winning the World Series every year.
Then, in 1963, the Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the Yankees to capture the title. As an impressionable 10-year-old, I proudly declared the Dodgers to be “my” team. But Dad stepped in. Not so fast, he said. No jumping back and forth among winners. You pick a team and you stay with them.
I’ve been a Dodger fan ever since.
As I continued to think Monday about Tony Gwynn, my thoughts drifted to the last time Dad and I attended a game together. In 1985 I was the sports editor at a newspaper in Ohio as Pete Rose continued to climb up the all-time hit chart in pursuit of Ty Cobb’s MLB record. Rose had tied Cobb’s mark on a Sunday in Chicago, and would attempt to break the record the following Tuesday at Riverfront Stadium. On the morning of that game, Dad called me at work and asked if I could pull some strings and land a couple of tickets. Lo and behold, it happened. And later that day we were headed to Cincinnati in hopes of witnessing baseball history.
It didn’t happen. Rose went 0-for-4 that night as we watched from the nosebleed seats of that horrid concrete stadium. He would break the record the following night — against the San Diego Padres.
My memory isn’t what it once was, but out of curiosity I went online Monday evening to find the box score from the game Dad and I had watched. Sure enough, playing rightfield for the Padres that evening was a 25-year-old Tony Gwynn.
As it turned out, it was the final game Dad and I would ever attend together. Not that he’s passed on — no, at 82 he’s still pretty lively. But each time I’ve asked in recent years if he wanted to go see a game, he refused. Not gonna help subsidize those over-paid, prima donna ballplayers, he always says.
In a way, I’m kinda glad. We went to Cincinnati that September night in 1985 with a chance to see history — and came up empty. We laughed about it a lot on the way home and called Pete Rose some names I can’t mention here. It was a good day.
Tony Gwynn’s death, as sad as it was, helped me remember some things that needed remembering — about a great baseball man as well as another great man who taught me the love of the game.
The writer is the managing editor of the Decatur Daily Democrat.