I NO LONGER have my favorite Tony Gwynn cartoon I ever drew, and for that, I’m grateful. That’s because the original art was given to Tony Gwynn — and I hope, even if just once, it brought a smile to the Hall of Famer’s face.
It would be just one small token of repayment for all the countless smiles Tony Gwynn brought to mine.
Sports fans can pick their favorite athletes, yet they don’t always pick which ones they will most often come to appreciate over time, let alone cross paths with. As a matter of proximity and household passion, I was brought up a San Francisco Giants fan, but Tony Gwynn — who would come to be known as “Mr. Padre” – was the player I would end up watching the most in person over the course of his career. From Day 1, the artist in me appreciated the artist in him.
It began early. When I was a teenager, Gwynn was the first player I ever drafted in a burgeoning-trend fantasy league, and I caught good-natured flak from fellow “owners” for it. The early book on T.G. was that he was a good contact hitter. By year’s end — Gwynn’s first full season in the bigs — no one was teasing: Tony not only hit .351 (claiming the first of his eight [!] batting titles), but still blessed with good wheels for a while yet (more on that later), he also stole 33 bases. The man who has been called “the purest hitter of an impure era” had launched his assault on the league, as well as the Hall of Fame.
As a San Diego sportswriter while in college, I began to really draw editorial cartoons of Gwynn in the ’90s, for the then-San Diego Union, and then the San Diego Union-Tribune and the house syndicate, Copley News Service. It was an era flush with highly inviting satiric targets, from Marge Schott to Pete Rose, Dennis Rodman to Donald Sterling – even the “fire sale” gang of Padres owners who heartlessly parted out the All-Star talent when the payroll was too rich for their new-Hollywood blood. But there was one All-Star they never managed to move — or didn’t dare to, lest the city mutiny.
In so many ways, the great Tony Gwynn was Mr. Untouchable.
Like few hitters in the history of the game, Gwynn could slap or spray, pull or rope the ball almost anywhere he wanted to, and seldom struck out. He was a pure lesson in preparation, watching hours of tape before the trend became popular – studying his swing so endlessly and precisely that another of his monikers became “Captain Video.” Season after season, at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, I watched him prepare, then perform. Prepare, then perform. He was meticulously practiced magic.
I mention that because for all the dozens of editorial cartoons I drew that involved or included Tony Gwynn, only one of them ended up in the graceful hands of the superstar himself. According to lore, he ignored his father’s urgings to seek a trade to a perennial playoff contender. And his loyalty was rewarded, not only with a second World Series appearance, but also with a lasting home in right field, even as the onetime Gold Glover gained weight and lost range and his footspeed became a memory.
By the late-’90s, fans openly wondered whether Mr. Padre had grown too slow. But there was one catch: Gwynn – the 15-time All-Star — could still hit like few in the game. And so, amid the roiling controversy of a city, I drew Tony Gwynn’s cleated feet on a bathroom scale, with the caption that indicated there was only one number that mattered. The number on the scale indicated not his weight, but rather his batting average. He had ended the season at “.338” (which would also ultimately be his lifetime average over a 20-year career).
That Sunday sports cartoon drew a couple of calls and letters of protest from Gwynn defenders, who – in apparent knee-jerk fashion – didn’t bother to really look at the cartoon’s visual, let alone comprehend it. I took that as another sign of the city’s deep protective affection for Mr. Padre.
One man who fully appreciated the cartoon’s message was then-Padres owner John Moores, a Texas transplant of a tech mogul who, some estimated, was worth nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars at the time. Moores reached out to me, asking how much I’d charge to buy the autographed original. “Is this going to Tony?” I confirmed. Yes indeed, Moores said. So I charged Moores only a nominal fee – enough to buy a few more Bristol pads and brush pens – and happily signed the art away. As a form of repayment to Mr. Padre, it was a pittance on my part.
Although I talked with any number of Padres over the years, I don’t recall ever having a direct conversation with Gwynn (who recently coached the son of a couple of my dear friends at San Diego State). But I like to think that he smiled that signature to-the-side grin of his when Moores gave him that cartoon (the owner told me he liked it), and that he found a fitting place to hang that framed art in his house. Perhaps even over a bathroom scale.
Tony Gwynn — one of the greatest hitters ever to play the game, and one of the most inspiring men I’ve ever watched grace the diamond — died early Monday morning, surrounded by family at Pomerado Hospital north of San Diego. Gwynn, who used smokeless tobacco throughout his career, had undergone surgery for oral cancer.
He was 54.
He was .338.
And he was the greatest I ever saw swing the bat.
Rest in peace, Mr. Padre. And thanks for all the artistry.
One of my many Padre cartoons from the ’90s; a later one went to Tony Gwynn himself.