It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to write in this space but I recently experienced the loss of a mentor. He was a mentor unlike no other because his mentoring wasn’t one-on-one. In fact, the example he set, and what I learned from this man, was unrelated to my profession.
The mentor was baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who succumbed to cancer on Father’s Day. It’s been a rough couple of weeks for me as Gwynn was not only my childhood hero, but I watched and learned from him the value of hard work and honing a craft.
For the past two weeks there have been meaningful tributes and great stories shared by sports writers and pundits alike. Gwynn was universally loved because he was genuinely a nice man and a giving human being. The world would be a much better place if most of us could be 70% the man Tony Gwynn was. He was a good guy and that’s why he’s being remembered so fondly.
This post isn’t about celebrating his historic baseball career or even the scores of stories about what a great guy he was. That’s been done and it’s all been said.
For this fan, and admirer, it’s more personal. Even though I didn’t “know” Tony, I knew Tony. Since the age of 11, I watched him. I rooted him on, chanted his name, and bought his baseball cards. But throughout that process, I also noticed how he carried himself. I noticed how he treated me, and others, when we did have the oft chance of running into him or talking to him before a game. He was a ballplayer and someone I looked up to and wanted to be. Not only for his ability to lace the ball through the 5.5 hole, but also because he was just a nice guy.
Watching him in the public eye, learning about his dedication to his craft, and seeing him fight through tough times off the field, my respect and admiration grew. He represented to me what a professional was. He also was an example of a grateful husband and a loving father. All of those steps I watched and noted.
The fact that the man was the best hitter of his generation didn’t stop him from knowing he was imperfect and needed to continue to work. He didn’t stop trying to get better. He appreciated his own talents but rarely accepted praise. He understood the only way to be great was to work hard and to give back. That was an amazing example and one that I still think about daily.
I was there in 2007 in Cooperstown when Gwynn received the highest honor a baseball player can receive – induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It was a special day I shared with my father, brother and my eldest son. Tony was that important to me and to us. Although we were there to honor his baseball career, it was always Tony the man that I admired the most. He was the mentor and I was the intern for over 20 years.
His death has been tough to process. Like so many of our friends and loved ones, he was taken from us way too early at just 54 years old – just 10 years my senior. And while some may think it’s a case of celebrity-driven grief, that’s not it. Maybe it will be hard to understand but Gwynn was more than that. In fact, he never was a celebrity to me. He was Tony and as anyone who grew up in San Diego knows, Tony was our neighbor, o
ur friend and our favorite son. He was family.
As I flew back from New York this past Thursday, I streamed the public memorial service on my Macbook. I openly wept watching it. It was touching and it was hard. There were so many great memories and words to remember #19. I’m still dealing with the grief. All for a man I knew so well yet only met a handful of times.
Despite the lack of personal interactions with Tony, he was a mentor and someone I admired and always will.
We often wondered how we’ll be remembered and what our true impact on the world will be once we’re gone. For a baseball player, being one of the few remember in Cooperstown would be enough. The humble nature of Tony Gwynn didn’t allow him to even accept how great he was in between the lines. For him, he wanted to be remembered for how he treated his teammates, the fans and the game itself. His desire was to live a great life by building up others. He accomplished that without a doubt and now that he’s gone, we all realize just how much he enriched our lives. Not just through baseball, but through his work in the community, and what he taught us about working hard, no matter how well we’re doing.
Despite his passing, Tony lives on.
My sons learn about his prowess on the diamond, but more importantly they learn about his habits and what he did to be the best. They learn about Tony the relentless student. They learn about Tony the man who gave back and was always thankful for every bit of success and failure he encountered. They learn about the husband and father who always beamed with pride.
Goodbye my friend, my mentor, my hero. Thank you for making me a better professional, a better man, and a better husband and father.
I am not a big Keith Olbermann fan, but this tribute to Tony Gwynn was fantastic. Enjoy.