LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The moment I first felt like a real sportswriter was in the spring of 1993, when I walked through the tunnel and out onto the turf of Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati during batting practice.
I was there for the afternoon newspaper I worked for in Evansville, Ind., looking for San Diego Padres pitcher Andy Benes, for a hometown-update kind of story.
I grew up a Reds fan. More than that, my dad had covered the Reds for radio in Cincinnati. As a baby, my mother toted me to games in Crosley Field. I don't remember it, but I was passed around by Reds players before I could even walk. When they found out my dad got $15 every time the network used one of his radio interviews with them, Johnny Bench and Pete Rose cornered him in the clubhouse one day and proposed he share that money with them.
You get to do a lot of cool things in this job. It makes up, sometimes, for not making the kind of money your doctor and lawyer friends bring home. Stepping onto the field at Riverfront Stadium that day for the first time was, for me, one of those things.
But that was only one of the memorable things that happened to me that day. The other was when I walked into the visitor's clubhouse looking for Benes.
Now, a guy's first time in a Major League clubhouse is pretty memorable in itself. I noted the varieties of gum available, and drinks, and food and sunflower seeds, the multiple varieties of smokeless and chewing tobacco, and wondered if, in addition to their salaries, pro ballplayers ever had to pay for anything. It was a quiet place. I'd come as early as I could come, and went looking for Benes' locker. He wasn't there, though there were some items in there.
"Who you looking for?" a voice said to me. I said I was looking for Andy Benes, I was from his hometown newspaper and was hoping to get a few minutes with him. The voice said Benes was in with the trainers but would be out shortly.
The reason I'm remembering all this now, and bringing it up here, again, is that the voice belonged to Tony Gwynn, who died Monday at the age of 54, from cancer.
Gwynn didn't just tell me that Benes would be back shortly, but he started talking about him, said he liked him, and a few things I finally was able to pay attention to and jot down for my story while thinking all the while, "Tony Gwynn is talking to me."
It was, you should know, a complete and utter journalistic meltdown. Gwynn was sitting at his locker, TV and VCR beside him, watching tape of the Reds' starter that day, and he would stop the tape occasionally and comment. I do remember he said he wished he'd studied the game as hard when he was younger as he did then, but that was usually the way with people. I talked to Gwynn for six or seven minutes, probably, before leaving him alone to do his thing.
I wish I had more of that conversation in my head. But I don't. I've written about it several times. I even went digging for the column I wrote about Gwynn from that conversation for my paper in Evansville, but it was buried too deep in the yellowing clippings to locate, and we weren't digitized back in those days.
That newspaper, The Evansville Press, has long since passed into memory, as nearly all afternoon papers have, but the memory of that afternoon has never left me.
What stuck with me about Tony Gwynn over the years, and especially after the news of his death, is how he called out to me -- and trust me, I was nobody -- and talked to me, made me feel as if I were a real sportswriter, there talking to a real ballplayer. If one true measure of a person is how they treat the least of those they come across, then Gwynn's average in the book of life went up 10 points that day.
From that moment, I was a Tony Gwynn guy. Not that anybody could've been anything else. A player hits .300 or better for 19 straight years? Come on. His achievements are phenomenal. Who was the first big-league ballplayer I ever interviewed? The question has come several times over the years, and I've been proud to say Tony Gwynn, and tell a little of his story.
What has impressed me over the years, and now on the day of his death, is that so many people who crossed paths with Gwynn had stories similar to my own. I had just one encounter with Gwynn, really, but he was the same, for all I can tell, with everyone, from Vin Scully right down to batboys and average fans.
He will always hold a special place for me, because of that day in Cincinnati, when he took a few minutes for a kid who was lost, and made him feel as if he belonged.