By now, all the kind things that could be said about Tony Gwynn have been. He was a great athlete, and he was a great hitter, and he was almost preposterously generous with his time and thoughts.
Put another way, he was so good at being good that when Barry Bonds decided to give media relations a try, he sought out Gwynn. After all, Bonds might not have been capable of great, warm and cuddly (or more precisely, unaware of how to combine that particular set of skills), but he knew where to go to learn. Gwynn told stories, Gwynn created stories, Gwynn was beyond comfortable in his own skin. There was nobody like him then, and there is nobody like him now.
So the question stands – is he the last of his kind, the active great player who can be all things to all people?
And the answer is, well, almost certainly yes.
Gwynn grew up in a media era that, while snarky and occasionally hypercritical in its way, was not yet all-intrusive, all the time. He acted like he had everything to share, which came across as having nothing to hide, and though the two are not equivalent, they can look a lot like it – especially when most eulogies include the trite phrase, “He was was a great player and an even better person.”
This is probably unlikely, because the bar is too unreasonably high. And that’s not a criticism, but a math fact. He is one of the 10, maybe 20 best hitters ever to play baseball, but it is probably a stretch to say he is also one of the 10 or 20 best people to ever play at being human. He was a hell of a guy, most agree wholeheartedly, and that is more than sufficient.
But let’s be honest here – most of the people making the judgments on Gwynn were the principal beneficiaries of his kindness, the sportswriters who needed and routinely got his time on nearly any subject. He was his own media relations department, as good at talking baseball as Vin Scully, only with a .338 average.
Now? Well, there may some hitters who can match his skills, but none that feel like gabbing on informally about it, or feel strongly enough about baseball to want to do it even obligatorily. The media relations people keep reporters at arm’s length because the managers, the hitting coaches and the players all want it that way, and nobody in baseball’s hierarchy sees a financial impact in trying to encourage such behaviors. There is too much to risk and not enough to gain.
[EXTRA BAGGS: No forgetting Tony Gwynn's big laugh, big heart]
Second, the media is dramatically different – with fewer traveling beat writers who can get to know the players at home and away (and yes, that matters, more than you can know) and greater demands for daily output. In addition, teams and leagues have their own media organs that require the practiced distance of video rather than the relaxed art of mere audio-taped or notebooked conversation. Athletes know how to play to the camera while building the wall between themselves and said camera. They are Of The Age.
Third, the audience is more fractious – less trusting of the stories, their tellers or their disseminators. They have been lied to too many times to be anything but cynical about the process of achievement or the veracity of yarn spinning. Home run hitters and power pitchers are PED users, and people who are comfortable with the media are mere salesmen – it is the new commutative process of addition, only no matter what two numbers you wish to add, the answer ends up being zero.
And this is equally true in the other sports as well. There are exceptions in one area or another, but the limitations and changing circumstances by which the players, teams and media operate make a purely Gwynn experience too rare to be the norm for anyone.
And there’s one more thing. Tony Gwynn really was a special character when it came to melding work ethic and conversation ethic. He was a rare creature when he was an active player as well – Pete Rose had the gift, and most managers had to have the gift because writers were their only conduits to the world and they needed the same beneficial relationships the writers did.
All of it is different now, and Gwynn passed Monday as quite likely the last athlete who could win the media so well that he was described without irony as “a great player who was a better person.” The media knows better than to truly believe that, but Tony Gwynn made them want to feel differently about the proposition. One cannot easily imagine another.