In September, 1996, my now-wife Amanda was my fiancée. Our first season running the Watertown (NY) Indians of minor league baseball’s New York-Penn League had recently concluded with a heartbreaking loss on a 2-out squeeze play to the hated St. Catharines Stompers. There was nothing to do in Watertown except freeze, so we were in New York getting ready for our October wedding.
I looked at the newspaper one afternoon and saw that the Mets were playing that night against the San Diego Padres at (the late, not-terribly-lamented) Shea Stadium. I turned to Amanda.
“Let’s go to the game tonight.”
She looked at me like I was a crazy person. I wasn’t a Mets fan, and we’d just been to 38 of our own games. The Mets weren’t anything special that year—they were on their way to going 71-91—and there were probably going to be 5,000 masochists in the stands that night.
“What brings this on?” She asked.
“It’s a chance to see Tony Gwynn. He’s getting older, he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame, and who knows when we’re going to get to see him again—he’s in his late 30’s (he was 36) and the Padres only come to NY once a year. So if we have the chance, we should be able to say that we saw Tony Gwynn.”
Honestly, I have no idea if Gwynn, who died of mouth cancer yesterday at only 54 years old, got a hit that night. My estimate of the attendance was, I believe, optimistic, and we were just happy to sit there, have a beer and a pretzel, and see a future hall of famer with a beautiful swing, 3,000 hits, no chip on his shoulder, and the utter respect of truly everyone in the sport.
And it’s funny. It’s been more than 18 years since we went to that game, and “you don’t understand: it’s seeing Tony Gwynn” has become a shorthand for Amanda and me every time we want to go see somebody who’s legendary and perhaps a bit past his or her prime, even if it’s inconvenient, because it’s simply worth it to have seen them.
“Oh Man, Steely Dan is playing at The Beacon but it’s $110 a ticket.”
“It’s Tony Gwynn.”
“Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart are in Waiting for Godot and the only tickets are the day before we’re leaving on a trip.”
“But it’s Tony Gwynn.”
A few months ago, there was a panel of Mad magazine writers at the east side Barnes & Noble, and my son Joe was hocking me to go because, among others, 90-something year-old Al Jaffe was going to be there. On a school night. Before a test. I hesitated, until my wife looked at me, and said all she needed to say.