To my mind the most attractive kind of conversations you can have is with anyone who manages to infuse expertise with passion — true, pure-grade passion.
I don’t really think the topic matters.
It could be about the art of making cardboard boxes or doing tax returns, but I was lucky enough to have a brief chat with Tony Gwynn about hitting a baseball.
When I was a staff member at The Daily Aztec, the excellent student newspaper at San Diego State, I was lucky enough to simultaneously cover my two loves, the arts and sports.
With the arts, I got to use the word “seminal” to my heart’s content and got a lot of free albums.
On the sports side, I covered SDSU track and field as well as (shock) soccer, but I would fill in on baseball.
In 2002, San Diego State baseball was in a moribund period.** The Aztecs, were then coached by Jim Dietz, who had been at the university since the early 1970s. But Dietz had not led SDSU to the NCAA tournament in a decade and many thought there’s no reason why one of the largest schools in the West shouldn’t be a major player in California’s competitive college baseball world.
The news that SDSU had hired Gwynn to replace his former college coach brought the Aztecs national attention, for a while, at least.
And it was during Gwynn’s first season that I covered a few games for the paper and got to write about my beloved baseball.
The first game I was assigned to stands out.
It was after an Aztecs win against (I think) Long Beach State that I went into the interview room at Tony Gwynn Stadium, which had been built in 1997 with money donated by then Padres owner John Moores and named after Mr. Padre himself.
Gwynn came in wearing a black SDSU jacket with white baseball pants. As I’ve only really seen the man wearing the various San Diego Padres gear down the years, it was a bit odd to see him decked out in something else. It was like Derek Jeter wearing a red accented uniform.
I was in the room along with a stringer from San Diego Union-Tribune, who seemed to be a dyspeptic sportswriter who emerged from nearby factory that manufactures cliches.
Being the guy from the real newspaper, he went first and trudged through his list of “Talk about…” non-questions. Sportswriters have been known on occasion to ask questions that square with the themes of their already written stories.
After he finished, I started with my questions, when Gwynn noticed my microcassette recorder in my hand.
“Hey, bring that up here on the table,” he said in that instantly recognizable, nasal, Southern California-friendly, voice of his.
Now, the Aztecs won the game on a rally that was started by an opposite field hit from a player whose name I wish I could remember right now.
I asked Gwynn about the play and if he’d been working in practice with that particular player on taking the ball the other way.
Gwynn perked up, and said that the player’s opposite field base hit “made him smile,” and then he enthusiastically walked me through the pitch, the situation and what the batter is supposed to do.
It was like listening to Beethoven talk not about the “Ninth Symphony” as whole, but just about what the cellos are doing.
I was fascinated, truly fascinated. Some moments define your life and others season them. If only by default any wisdom happens to adhere to age, I know now that both are important.
**It has been pointed out by a former colleague that Dietz won more than 35 games in each of his last three years, but were unlucky to not reach the NCAA tournament. The perils of editing yourself. -SC-