The people came to upstate New York, to the field on the outskirts of a town synonymous with the game itself. They'd come for a baseball ceremony. They'd come on a pilgrimage.
So they filled this town, and they filled this field, and they filled the shady places beneath the trees, and they filled the knolls under the sun and fanned themselves with programs. Then they filled their hearts, for the very reason they came.
That glorious summer, they'd come for the Iron Man, Cal Ripken Jr., and they'd come for Mr. Padre, Tony Gwynn, because they appreciated the ballplayers they were and they loved the men they were. A woman held up a California license plate that read, "MR PADRE." From the crowd, men in yellow and brown jerseys chanted, "TOE-nee! TOE-nee!"
There'd once been a way to play the game. There was a way to conduct oneself. In the summer of 2007, the people went to Cooperstown to touch those men and their values, to relive the careers that were so special, to say thank you.
At 54, he died early Monday morning in Poway, Calif.
So we say it again to Tony Gwynn, in case he didn't hear it the first time or the countless times since: Thank you.
Thank you for your heart, your professionalism, your loyalty, your toughness and your genuine laugh, which, cruelly, we will not hear again. Thank you for teaching us the craft, for sitting at your locker and making it sound so hard, for standing in the box and making it look so easy. Thank you for the back of your baseball card, which stacks "SAN DIEGO" on top of "SAN DIEGO" on top of "SAN DIEGO," on and on, and stacks batting titles on top of batting titles, on and on. And for the back of your jersey, No. 19, which never changed, and the front of your jersey, which always read the same. Thank you for playing for the little guy and making it look good. Thank you for your son, Tony Jr., a kind and thoughtful young man whose sole failure as a ballplayer was to be born to one of the greatest hitters to ever grip a bat. Thank you for having us out to those ballgames, and for having us all up to Cooperstown that day and for making us feel good about our game.
We'll be back this summer, next month, and for a moment the place will be packed for you again. It will be alive again with tales of who you were, and how you played, and how you hit. Especially who you were.
The words we'll put to the memories will be yours, too. Inescapable that afternoon seven years ago was the symbolism of Gwynn and Ripken together on a stage in an era that otherwise stood for gluttony and greed and chemical shortcuts. This was about dignity. This was about being decent, and caring as much for the how of the game as for the what of the game.
"I think so. Honestly, I do," you said that day. "I think fans felt comfortable enough with us they could trust us. They could trust the way we played the game, especially in this era of negativity. Apparently the writers felt that way, too. There's no way I'm a 97-something-percent guy."
That's 97.6 percent, and you were right. That's too low.
"We make a big deal about work ethic," you said, "about trying to make good decisions and doing things right. And you know what? That's what we're supposed to do. When you sign your name on the dotted line, there's more than just playing the game of baseball. I think if you look out here today, you see all these people out here today, they love the game too. … Those people who pay to watch you go out and play, you've got to be responsible and make decisions and show people how things are supposed to be done."
Take the upper-deck home runs. Take the 98-mph fastballs. Take the overstuffed men and their overstuffed records and their overstuffed legacies. The most beautiful sight in the Tony Gwynn era was the man in the Padres uniform, left-side batter's box, him growing paunchy with age, his hands still wired and supple. Watch them try to beat him with the big fastball away, and watch his hands wait, wait, wait and then watch his bat flash, and watch the baseball come off the barrel hard and low and past the third baseman, past the shortstop. And watch him churn toward first base, another hit on his way to 3,141 of them, another couple points toward a career .338 batting average.
Cancer has no 5.5 hole. So Gwynn is gone today too soon, and we'll remember the 20 years he put in, and how special they were.
And we'll remember too that you could add up all those numbers he posted and they'd never amount to all those decisions he made. That was the greatness of Tony Gwynn.
So, thanks. Thanks for everything.