By Emmanuel Burgin
At my local watering hole a bittersweet moment occurred. Chalked on the board of available beers was an AleSmith Tony’s Take .394 named in the honor of the late great Padre Hall of Famer and his final batting average in the shortened baseball strike season of 1994.
I had interviewed Tony a few days before the strike began, ending his bid to reach the .400 batting average last achieved in 1947 by baseball titan and Tony’s idol Ted Williams. The strike also cancelled the World Series, something not even World War ll had done. The strike would become a black eye on America’s pastime.
As a reporter for a small local newspaper getting an interview with Tony in the midst of his great pursuit of baseball history would be no small feat.
That summer day I took a seat in the dugout and nervously studied my notes and waited. When Tony stepped out of the clubhouse tunnel and into the dugout, I stood and introduced myself, and he quickly stated not today, come by tomorrow. Then up the steps he went, bat over his shoulder, on his way to a dozen interviews and eventually to batting practice.
I left deflated but returned the next day and sat in the same spot and waited. I heard a major sports magazine writer was in the ballpark looking to feature Tony, and gazing towards the batting cage I spied the well known writer near home plate chatting with ballplayers and coaches as if he had known them all his life.
Also, I could see the television crews and sports reporters lined along the first base line waiting to get a few words with Tony. When Tony finished with the TV crews he’d move on to the major newspapers, and then with the time left he’d get in a few swings before the game: truly a media circus.
Tony I thought would never have time for me. I wanted to leave. Yet, I stayed and soon Tony approached me in the dugout. I remained seated this time and as he neared I smiled and made eye contact, he gave me a glance, a smile and not missing a step turned quickly and went towards the throng of reporters and news crews. I was crushed and embarrassed.
Then he stopped as if pondering something. Had he recalled his promise? He could easily have ignored me, his time so precious, interviewers waiting, batting practice needed. Then he pivoted gracefully and looked at me for a moment and then he walked toward me with his bat over his shoulder, skipping down the steps he pointed at me and said “Go” and sat next to me in the dugout.
I knew Tony played basketball at Long Beach Poly High School because I had attended Lynwood High and our undefeated teams had met in the state’s biggest game that year. I would use this to ease into the interview.
“Ooooh we beat you bad,” Tony said with a big smile, then gave that distinctive laugh.
They had and Tony, their star point guard, led the way. We reminisced about the big game, the big plays, and the great players who participated. We laughed and chuckled like high school kids. Every once in awhile I looked up to see reporters on deadlines not at all happy with me. I finally asked a few questions, and then explained I had to end the interview because I had a second story to cover about an award recipient. I pointed to the ceremony beginning across the infield along the third base line.
“Yeah, yeah go,” Tony said.
I thanked Mr. Gwynn and dashed toward the ceremony running past the gallery of reporters and the magazine writer, doing my best to ignore them.
Tony kept his word and a reporter for a small local newspaper is forever grateful. Cheers Mr. Gwynn.
Tony never held any bitterness about the strike. He was glad it happened when it did knowing if he were batting .400 at the time of the strike some would have questioned whether he could have accomplished the feat over a full season. He had made peace with the baseball gods and his missed appointment with destiny. But me, after the strike and his lost opportunity at baseball immortality and his chance to stand next to his idol Ted Williams as an equal, I had had it. I was never right with the game after that.
Emmanuel Burgin is the former sports editor of El Sol de San Diego, a PEN America member, and author of the novel “Vagabond Blues,” a San Diego Book Award finalist. He divides his time between Prague, Czech Republic and San Diego.
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