By Frank Lewis
It is amazing that many of the small moments in your life have a lasting impression. When NBA star Brad Daugherty was a small child he went to the race track. There a tall thin man came over to the fence and took all the time in the world to talk with him. He never forgot that man and kept his car number on his jersey. The number was 43 and the man was Richard Petty.
One time I took my friend Tony DeHart to the Cincinnati Reds locker room. There were no other fans in the room at the time and Eric Davis was sitting on a table getting his foot wrapped. Tony asked for his autograph. Davis’ response was - “I’m too busy.” Tony will never forget that moment and neither will I.
I told those two contrasting stories to share one more with you. There is not much that is more miserable than a long rain delay at a baseball game, but that is where I found myself one day as the Cincinnati Reds were hosting the San Diego Padres and the rain was coming down really heavy. I was thankful to be sitting in a section that was under roof.
The players had gone to the clubhouse to sit out the downpour except for one player. As I looked I couldn’t believe my eyes. There, standing in the rain, leaning over the rail, signing autographs, was Tony Gwynn. Tony Gwynn was a common man with an uncommon ability to hit inside-out to the opposite field just because he liked to. He was one of those guys who would show up at a high school baseball practice and offer advice to kids without being invited and without taking a dime for his efforts.
Tony Gwynn never threatened to “hold out” on a contract, and all things considered, was never paid what he was really worth. But when he said he would probably play for free, he probably actually meant it.
Not one time did anyone ever even look in his direction during a discussion of performance enhancing drugs. That would have been absurd. There was not a chance in the world that he would ever even consider such a thing. Not one time did he get arrested or involved in a scandal.
His leadership was not loud, but it was undeniable. He spoke with an almost squeaky high-pitched country twang. But when he spoke, people listened because he was one of the best hitters in the history of baseball.
This past week we said goodbye to Tony Gwynn, who at the age of 54, died of complications from salivary cancer, most likely caused by that stuff coaches have overlooked for years, known as smokeless tobacco.
It is sad that a generation of young people will not get to see him in action because he was some kind of stellar performer. He could hit. He was a kind and generous man, and he left a lasting impression on me because he stood in a downpour and signed autographs. Would anyone have noticed if he had not done so that day? Probably not, but he was conspicuous by being there, rain falling off the bill of his cap, smiling at children and trying to bring some sunshine to a cloudy, drenched day.
I have had some experiences in my life I will never forget. Tony Gwynn signing autographs in the rain was one of those.
Frank Lewis can be reached at 740-353-3101, Ext. 252, or on Twitter @FrankLewispdt.