This has nothing to do with the A's. Really, at this point, do you really want to hear me talk about the A's?
No, I'd rather talk about Sunday's Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. I had a rooting interest in this year's class of inductees. My undergraduate years in San Diego happened to coincide with Tony Gwynn racking up batting titles just down I-15, so he was always high on my list of Favorite Ballplayers, Non-A's Division. And that was before he did me a solid when I was just starting out as a doe-eyed reporter.
Once upon a time, your correspondent harbored ideas about becoming a sportswriter. This was problematic for a couple of reasons, not the least of which was that your correspondent was employed by a national business newspaper that had no sports section to speak of. (Other problems: My game accounts tend to read like the narrative for those NFL Film from the 1970s, and it turns out that, with a few exceptions noted below, interviewing professional athletes is not much different from encounters with jocks in high school, only with fewer wedgies and more income disparity.)
Ah, but the newspaper I wrote for also had a daily feature that profiled industry leaders, headline makers, the undisputed titans of their professions in an oft vain attempt to get them to spill some of the secrets behind their success. The feature was near and dear to the heart of the publisher, who mandated that every reporter on staff would contribute a regular profile, regardless of whether they showed any aptitude or interest in doing so. Perhaps for that reason, many of my colleagues did not. But where others saw employer-mandated drudgery, I saw an opportunity to unleash my inner Grantland Rice. And so, invariably, when it came to be my turn to write one of the accursed things, I would wind up proposing a profile on some sports figure, usually a baseball player. And, through the powers of persuasion, plus the fact that my editor had a limited knowledge of sports, I was usually able to make the argument that not only should we profile Athlete X, the readers of our business publication would think us fools and frauds that we had not already done so.
I am very cunning when I choose to be. And that is how, in the spring of 1999, I found myself on an airplane to Phoenix, Arizona, to interview Tony Gwynn at the Padres' spring training facility. Gwynn was entering that season just 72 hits shy of 3,000, so that was my news angle. How I was able to convince the higher-ups that I absolutely had to speak Gwynn before the season started, thus necessitating a Spring Training trip on the company's dime, I am not exactly sure, but I hope one day to use those powers to trick God into letting me into heaven.
The game plan I worked out with the Padres was thus: I would show up at the Peoria Sports Complex bright and early to get a half-hour of face time with Gwynn before workouts began, and then spend the rest of the day watching him go about his business so that I could dutifully report how Tony Gwynn went about his business to my paper's readership. And so I arrived bright and early -- even earlier that bright and early, actually -- only to find the Padres' offices locked up tighter than a drum and my media relations handler nowhere in sight. Panic didn't complete set in until H-hour came and went with no sign of life.
To spare you the tail of my inner turmoil -- after enough time rattling doors and tapping on windows, I was finally able to get the attention of a Padres staffer who let me in, hustled me through the credentialing process, and ushered me off to Tony Gwynn's locker about 10 or 15 minutes past when we were supposed to meet.
"You're late," Tony Gwynn said to me, after I had managed to sputter out an introduction. I began to offer profuse apologies, mentally calculating the fine line between appearing sincerely sorry for any inconvenience and coming off as a whiny, little incompetent, when he chuckled.
"I'm messing with you," he said. "Come on -- let's go."
And so we went off into an office somewhere in the Padres' facility, where I got to fire off questions to Tony Gwynn about how he approached hitting, how he prepared for ballgames, and whatever else came into my head. The interview was supposed to be 30 minutes -- it went on well past that, and not once did Gwynn look at his watch or signal to the PR guy hovering in the corner to cut me off or give any sort of indication that he wasn't going to give me as much of his time as he possibly could. I don't delude myself into thinking it was because I'm that compelling an interviewer -- I would imagine there probably wasn't a question I asked him that he hadn't heard, in some or another, at least half-a-dozen times. But he answered them all, thoughtfully and completely. It was probably one of two most enjoyable interviews I've ever done -- movie producer Saul Zaentz was the other -- and easily one of the most enjoyable days of my professional life.
None of this makes Tony Gwynn a Hall of Famer, of course. The eight batting titles and career .338 average take care of that. What it does do, however, is make it exceptionally easy to root for him and to thrill whenever he gets recognized for his accomplishments. I don't necessarily need players to be model citizens to admire their on-the-field accomplishments, but when you meet someone who actually is a really nice guy, it makes things a whole lot sweeter.
A few things have stuck with me from that interview, besides how accommodating Gwynn was, and how that's really a model for how you should conduct yourself as a professional. (I try; Tony Gwynn's batting average is a lot better than mine, if you get my meaning.) When we were talking about the way he reviewed videos of each of his at-bats -- as he mentioned in his induction speech, taping at-bats really became a crucial part of his preparation -- he seemed honestly puzzled that anyone should consider that to be out of the ordinary. "Isn't that what you should be doing?" he said.
Something that probably amused only me: The publisher who took such an active interest in this feature was insistent that successful people possessed certain traits and habits, and that one thing every successful person did was write down their goals. So I asked Gwynn if that was something he did -- before the start of each season, did he write down what his goals were for the coming year and then review them at season's end to see how he had done. He used to, he said -- but then at the end of the year, he usually found that he didn't meet the goals he had written, and it would depress him, so he stopped doing it.
First off, given all that Gwynn accomplished season after season, how ridiculously lofty must those goals have been? Secondly, take that, meddling, know-it-all publisher!
While I am running off at the mouth about all this, I believe though I am not certain that my PR contact with the Padres was a young, pre-Red Sox Nation Theo Epstein. His time in San Diego in general and the Padres' PR department in particular seems to gibe with when I lined up the Gwynn interview, and I seem to recall the person I did most of my back-and-forth with had a name outside of the usual John-Joe-Jim-Bob-Mike continuum. I suppose I'd have to dig through my notes to be sure, but I'm going to stick with the "I knew Theo way back when" story.
And you know what? I'm going to further assert -- without any evidence, mind you -- that dealing with me was doubtlessly such a pain that it solidified young Theo's resolve to leave behind the world of PR and work his way up the management chain. "You've been in a Major League locker room before, right?" the PR guy that was probably Theo asked me. "Of course," I lied. And Theo, sickened by my obvious mendacity, resolved then and there to become a general manager of a baseball club, preferably as far away from California as possible.
If true, Red Sox fans, you owe me a debt of gratitude. I will accept not being boisterous and profane the next time I attend one of your team's games as a fitting reward.
The reporter talking to Tony Gwynn at his locker when I showed up after being unavoidably detained was San Diego sports-talk radio fixture Lee "Hacksaw" Hamilton. Hamilton didn't seem terribly pleased when Gwynn excused himself to talk to me -- an assumption I made after Hamilton spent the rest of the day glaring at me whenever our paths crossed at the training complex. If you've ever heard his show, I hope you can understand why I wasn't too broken up over that.
And if Gwynn was one of the most polite people I've ever had the pleasure of interviewing, one of the rudest also was on the stage at Sunday's ceremony in Cooperstown. Can you name him? A hint: It's probably not who you would think.