I worked in radio a long time, but never met Kasem. I met Gwynn, who passed away the day after Kasem, on several occasions. He was always a class act.
One bit I did on the radio was calling the San Diego Padres and trying to convince them to let me throw out the first pitch. After being told it would cost a $35,000 donation, they suggested that I “sing the National Anthem.” I asked how much that would cost. Surprisingly, it was free. They booked the date, and it was set. Only problem was, I can’t sing. So we invited a few listeners to join me. Two girls and a guy, and as per the teams request, we recorded it first. That way, if anybody forgot the words (like comedian Roseanne Barr did in front of a Padres crowd), it would still play and sound great.
As we walked off the field, Gwynn shook the hands of all of us and told us how great we sounded. The two girls asked for autographs, and he signed their caps. Him signing autographs for fans was nothing new. I had seen him stand there for hours signing. The only time I ever saw him refuse a person, was a guy that had 8 items signed and was pushing his way in front of others. Gwynn snapped, “I’ve had enough. I’ve signed so many things for you and you’re not giving others a chance, so I’m leaving.”
A police officer that’s a friend of mine told me about how he and his partner pulled into a gas station. They saw a brown Mercedes with a “Pads 19” license plate. Sure enough, it was the greatest Padre in history. His partner ran over and said, “Give me your autograph.”
Gwynn responded, “A ‘please’ would be nice,” before signing.
For those that aren’t familiar with his stats, Tony Gwynn is a Hall of Famer that spent 20 years with the Padres, won a number of Gold Gloves, and was an All-Star most years. He also led the league in hitting many times. He’s arguably the best hitter in baseball (some would say that honor goes to another late San Diegan – Ted Williams).
Playing 20 years in one city isn’t the only thing that made him legendary here. He played basketball for the San Diego State Aztecs and would eventually become their baseball coach after his career ended.
I remember at one luncheon with a few media types, we were each given 15 minutes to interview Gwynn. Afterwards, we could take a photo with him, which they turned into an 8 x 10 before you left. They said, “Mr. Gwynn will sign the photo before you leave.”
At that time I was doing sports for the morning show, and using the name “Stryker Maguire” (long story). He laughed for two minutes when he heard my name, before saying “That’s a goofy name.”
Perhaps he just didn’t like anything with the word “strike” in it. This is a guy that didn’t strike out often.
When I worked at McDonald’s in high school, our owner arranged to have Gwynn work there all morning. I’m not sure what kind of promotion it was, but it was a blast working with him, and periodically throwing baseball cards on the counter for him to sign. A few employees wanted McDonald’s cups signed. They thought that would be cooler. I think it’s cool to just tell people, “Yeah, I used to work at McDonald’s with Tony Gwynn.”
When I coached youth basketball teams in the early ‘90s, one team had Padres players kids. Gary Templeton and Gwynn were always there in the stands, and although they would’ve probably preferred sitting there as proud parents, they always smiled and signed autographs when things were put in front of them. Even if that meant they were missing their kids play on the court.
One of the kids on my basketball team was in the Cub Scouts and needed a broadcasting or journalism badge. A parent asked if I would take their troop into the radio station for a tour. A neighbor of one of the boys wanted to come along. He was a cute Asian kid that wanted to pursue a career in journalism. I got a call from his mother a week later. It turns out his father had died a few months earlier. Now their school was having a “career day” and dads had to come and talk about their jobs. Since his dad wasn’t around, and he wanted to pursue a broadcasting career, she wondered if I would be the adult he brought in. I was honored.
I showed up at the school and spoke to the class about my career. When I asked if anybody had any questions, one kid raised his hand and said, “Have you ever met Tony Gwynn?”
I told him about the few times I had interviewed him and the rest of the class raised their hands. They wanted to know other things about Gwynn. Did I ever get an autograph from him? Did I hang out with him? Could I bring him to their school tomorrow?
I had a friend named Vince that used to put stages together at local concert venues. Gwynn was his favorite player, and at one autograph signing, Vince brought him a box of fruit from the farm his family ran. Gwynn thanked him, and at the next autograph signing, he was given more fruit. Gwynn said he’d sign anything the guy wanted, to which Vince said, “You already gave me your autograph once. That’s enough for me. You’re my favorite player, though. I just wanted to see you again.”
They became friends and this led to Vince getting a job opening fan mail and doing other things for Gwynn. The stories he told me of Gwynn and the classy things he did over the years, was mind blowing. For a professional athlete, that is one of the best in the sport, to treat everyone politely (even when they’re all pestering you for photos and autographs), it’s truly amazing.
Vince passed away a few years ago from complications related to diabetes. I like to think he’s up there with Gwynn now, playing catch. While down here on Earth, we realize Tom Hanks was wrong. There is crying in baseball. At last today there is.