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A Hall of Famer as sweet as his swing

This is a Tony Gwynn story. But, as with every Tony Gwynn story, it is about somebody else.

It was 20 years ago in Cincinnati. I was covering the San Diego Padres for this newspaper. My little brother Andrew had joined me on the trip.

It was the early evening hours after a day game. I was in the hotel room finishing work. Andrew was in the hotel lobby waiting impatiently for dinner.

As you may remember from a column several years ago, Andrew suffers from cystic fibrosis. At 13, the terminal illness kept him thin and small.

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Swallowed by an overstuffed chair in an elegant hotel lobby, Andrew wasn’t easily noticed.

Tony Gwynn noticed him.

Tony Gwynn didn’t even know him, and he noticed him.

Upon returning from the game, Gwynn saw him sitting alone, looking lost, so he walked up, sat down, and started talking.

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He talked hitting, he talked life. Andrew eventually introduced himself and they talked some more. At one point, Andrew wondered why one of the best players in baseball was hanging out in a hotel lobby on a Saturday.

That’s when the pizza arrived.

Keeping with his nightly ritual, Gwynn had ordered a pizza that he would eat in his room while watching videotape.

Only this time, he opened it up on the expensive lobby furniture and shared it with Andrew.

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By the time I got downstairs, Gwynn was waving goodbye and disappearing up the stairs, leaving Andrew with crusts and memories.

The next day I thanked Tony, and, typically, he shrugged.

“Thanks for what?” he said. “For eating dinner?”

Today Andrew is 34 and still winning the battle against CF. During one of our daily phone calls, I asked him if he remembered his time with Tony.

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“It’s one of the stories of my life, and a story that gets even better,” he said. “Beginning Sunday, I can tell everyone I had dinner with a Hall of Famer.”

In a way, many of us can.

When Gwynn is inducted into the Hall of Fame today, he carries with him the memories of those he touched in ways that had nothing to do with ball or bat.

His sweetest attribute wasn’t his swing, it was his personality. His biggest hits weren’t on the field, but in the lives of those who were lucky enough to brush against him.

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People ask me who, in my 27 years in this business, is the best player I have covered.

It is Tony Gwynn. There is no question. There is nobody second. I am not alone.

His Cooperstown plaque needs a soundtrack. His Cooperstown wing needs a couch.

For two decades, Gwynn was the most approachable, accommodating athlete not only in baseball, but in all of sports.

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One question would lead to a discussion. A five-minute interview would last an afternoon. He never talked about himself, he talked about the game.

He brought you into its wonders, he mesmerized you with its charms. He made you laugh at its foibles.

Then you would write the easiest story in the world, using Gwynn’s words to spread that same gospel to the readers.

He was a gap hitter, indeed, bridging the gap between the average fan and his sometimes complicated sport, warming a chilly relationship in his giant embrace.

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When bad losses sent the clubhouse into tension and the players into hiding, Gwynn was always at his locker to take the punches.

When a timid reporter was afraid to ask a question, Gwynn would ask it for him. When an embattled reporter was being harassed by other players, Gwynn would literally stand beside him.

His cynical young teammates thought he should be meaner, but he couldn’t. The gruff veterans wanted him to stop smiling so much, but he wouldn’t.

“How hard is it to be nice to people?” Gwynn asked me once. “How hard is it to promote the game I love?”

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Because he spent his career in the relative shadows of San Diego, the sports world never fully appreciated his impact. Because he never promoted himself, few understood how much he promoted the game.

Remember that celebrated moment when fellow Cooperstown inductee Cal Ripken Jr. circled Camden Yards slapping high-fives with fans after breaking the consecutive games record?

In a way, Tony Gwynn did that every day of his career.

“He was the best interview I’ve ever had, by far,” said Bob Nightengale, USA Today baseball writer with 22 years on the beat. “And it wasn’t just me, it was everybody. He treated a high school reporter the same way he treated a reporter from ’60 Minutes.’ ”

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On my first day on the Padres beat for The Times’ San Diego bureau in 1987, volatile manager Larry Bowa engaged in a screaming match with another reporter, literally chasing him out of his office. The team’s best player saw me wandering around the clubhouse a few minutes later and stuck out his hand.

“Hey, my name’s Tony Gwynn,” he said. “I’m here if you need me.”

Man, did we ever need him.

During a period when baseball players became flush with money and ego while their popularity was being flushed down the toilet, Gwynn was its best player-ambassador, even when nobody was looking.

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George Dohrmann, a writer for Sports Illustrated, was an intern for a San Diego newspaper when he approached Gwynn for his first baseball interview.

“I was a nobody, yet he invites me to sit down and talk, and I’m thinking, wow, all baseball players are going to be like Tony Gwynn,” Dohrmann said, pausing. “And here I am today, interviewing Barry Bonds.”

No baseball player was like Tony Gwynn.

You could criticize him, even on highly sensitive subjects, and he would understand. The San Diego Union-Tribune once ran a chart on Gwynn’s annual weight gains, infuriating the slugger.

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“But a day later, you wouldn’t have known we ever ran the story,” said Tom Krasovic, longtime Padres beat writer for the Union-Tribune. “He held no grudges. He was the same old Tony.”

Barry Bloom, a former Padres beat writer known for his critical stories, remembers when the club voted to stop talking to him.

“After the vote, Tony came right over to me and said that, while he had to vote with his teammates, I could talk to him whenever I wanted,” Bloom said. “I never forgot that.”

Nick Canepa, longtime Union-Tribune columnist, remembers running a quote from Gwynn that was critical of booing fans.

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The next day, television reporters rushed to Gwynn to check the quote’s accuracy. Canepa didn’t use a tape recorder, so it would have been easy for Gwynn to deny the quote and save face. In fact, many players in his situation have done exactly that.

“Not Tony, never Tony,” Canepa said. “He stood by the quote. He always did. He was best of the best.”

I was going to call Gwynn for this story, but, you know, he has shared enough, spread enough, sold enough.

Can a bunch of us get in a word edgewise?

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That word would be thanks.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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