Hall of Fame baseball player Tony Gwynn died today, and it reminded me that I spend the majority of the 1990’s grounded.
I’m being completely literal right now. I totaled it up once.
From the first occasion in 1989, when I came home with a note pinned to my tank top from Ms. Bear, my kindergarten teacher, saying that I had shouted the word “BITCH” in class for no apparent reason, to the final grounding in 2000, when I got in a fistfight in the upstairs hallway of my high school’s main building (I won) with two days left in sophomore year, I spent about six calendar years grounded.
Grounded means different things to different people. To me it meant that I was either in my room, or doing chores. I even ate in my room, a tiny rectangular add-on in the back corner of our 1600 square foot ranch-style home- though it did get a tad bigger after my giant waterbed popped.
When I was in my room I usually had three go-to self-entertainment options- 1) Read, 2) Draw or 3) Stare at the stucco on the eggshell-white walls until decipherable shapes appeared. I almost always chose reading. I read everything- The Hardy Boys and The Boxcar Children could only hold me over for so long before I moved on to books like George Carlin’s Brain Droppings and Dennis Miller’s Rants. My time “locked up” was turning me into an enormous smart-ass. Once, when I ran out of books, product labels and instruction manuals to read, I managed to get my hands on some old baseball cards. And by get my hands on, I mean I probably stole them.
I didn’t know anything about baseball. The only thing I knew about sports at that time, which was around the summer of 1993, is that if there was a God, he hated the Phoenix Suns (John Paxson still haunts my dreams). Like I was saying before, I wasn’t familiar with baseball- but the amount of information packed onto the back of one card was enough to fill a solid 20 minutes of comparison and memorization. One card that stood out immediately was a 1993 Topps Gold-Embossed Tony Gwynn card. It had to be worth a solid 50 cents. Again, not knowing much about baseball, I had to compare each player’s numbers against the others to see who was considered “good.” According to his baseball card, Tony Gwynn led the league in hitting in ’84, ’87, ’88 and ’89. Since I wasn’t an advanced statistician at the age of nine, I figured if he was the best hitter, then he was the best player. I made up my mind right then and there- Tony Gwynn was going to be my favorite baseball player.
I checked out every book I could find about Tony Gwynn. I found out my neighbor had a bunch of Tony Gwynn cards, and had a similar affinity for Cecil Fielder, so I hunted down every Cecil Fielder card I could in hopes my neighbor would trade. He always did. I planned my summers around the Padres playing either Chicago or Atlanta, because those games would be on WGN and TBS. I had a classmate with a relative in the Padres organization who I constantly peppered with questions to see if I could learn more about Mr. Gwynn, and what made him such a great hitter. I wrote letters and mailed drawings. When Arizona got a baseball team in 1998, I made sure the first game I ever attended was against the 1998 Padres team that made it all the way to the World Series. It wasn’t until Gwynn announced his retirement in 2001 that I finally allowed myself to say that Arizona was officially my new favorite team.
I think every story of extreme fandom probably starts out in some strange fashion. For me, it was extreme boredom and a lack of reading material that led me to adopting what would become my favorite athlete, regardless of sport, of all time. I like to think that my appreciation for Gwynn only grew when I came to realize what everyone inside baseball already knew- he wasn’t just the best hitter in the game, he was quite possibly the best human being. I wish I could say that he inspired me to become a better athlete or baseball player, but I never even played baseball. The closest I’d get is playing a full nine inning game in the backyard with a toy bat and rocks. I had the standard long-skinny yellow whiffle bat that I used for eight of the hitters in the lineup, but when I was pretending to be Gwynn, I’d break out the fat orange bat that ensured I wouldn’t be able to lower his career .338 average.
Tony Gwynn was 54. Despite being a professional athlete, he was never really in tip-top shape, and ultimately, smokeless tobacco cost him his life. I’m sure there will be hundreds, if not thousands of tributes to Mr. Gwynn in the coming days. Mine is simply to outline how thankful I am for his baseball heroics brightening up my childhood, and to toss a few balls to my sons in the backyard.
Rest in piece Tony Gwynn, and thank you for everything.