I remember a simple bus ride across town being an adventure; soaking up new scenes and gushing; either inside my mind or with a stranger. Those moments drift into the past much quicker now. They disappear into nothing. I don’t cling to them; don’t want to anymore. It must be old age.
I remember when baseball records were untouchable. I would stare in complete awe at the 3,000 hits list sometimes 30 minutes or longer. I remember being in math class when the name Cobb was spoken. I felt embarrassed or vulnerable like a secret had been exposed, like no one should say Cobb’s name in vain.
It seems so stupid now, but those players, the ones I only knew as black and white photographs were from a different world where time and death didn’t exist. All I could do was imagine. It was powerful. George Herman Ruth, Tyrus Raymond Cobb, Rogers Hornsby. Who were they? Were they even real?
They were locked in some other dimension; invincible. They were the summer vacation that never ends. They were youth and the excitement of a simple road trip. And then Rose cracked 3,000 followed by Lou Brock, Carl Yastrzemski, Rod Carew, Robin Yount, George Brett, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Paul Molitor, Gwynn, Boggs, Ripken, Henderson, Palmeiro, Biggio and Derek Jeter. The same happened with home runs and for pitchers; strikeouts. It seemed dirty and wrong.
So many players I held in my hands as baseball cards were invading this immortal space. The coveted treasure chest was being soiled. It was all too human and real. There wasn’t much to anticipate anymore. I was getting old. Something had slipped through my fingers….sinking fast.
I spent more time as a child scanning backs of baseball card statistics than going anywhere or meeting people. Not much has changed. I just look at a baseball reference instead of the backs of cards, but my eyes still gravitate towards batting average despite the tradition’s bluesy existence beside sabermetrics. I listen and learn about WAR and BABIP, but still can’t kick the habit of batting average. Still can’t kick the habit of Tony Gwynn.
He’s the last leaf on my winter tree and he refuses to crumble and fall. His .338 career batting average is surrounded by all those old names on black and white photographs; the invincibles; the Cobb, Hornsby, Joe Jackson, Lefty O’Doul, Ed Delahanty, Tris Speaker, Billy Hamilton, Ted Williams, Dan Brouthers, Babe Ruth, Dave Orr, Harry Heilmann, Pete Browning, Willie Keeler, Bill Terry, George Sisler, Lou Gehrig, Jesse Burkett and then there he is….Tony Gwynn followed by Nap Lajoie.
He’s the only one I saw with my own eyes. He’s the only one I held in my own hands. Gwynn’s 1983 Topps Rookie card is the tail pipe exhaust after a hot rod race to me. It’s him hitting .289 as a rookie in 1982; the only time he hit under 300. It’s followed by nineteen consecutive years batting over .300 including .394 in 1994; that strike season of what ifs.
But there is no if when it comes to Gwynn on my baseball tree of life. He’s still there and always will be, tied with Jesse Burkett and Nap Lajoie; the three of them at .3382, sandwiched between Gehrig .3401 and Jake Stenzel .3378.