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Tony Gwynn and the Green Shoes

Tony at a youth baseball camp I attended in elementary school. He nicknamed me “Hollywood” for being the only kid with big sunglasses at the camp.–Dan McMenamin

“Why do you even like the Padres?”

This can be a tough question to answer for some San Diego fans amid all of the recent losing seasons and the couple of late-season heartbreaks in between.

But for me, the answer is pretty simple: #19.

I grew up in Poway, a city perhaps most famous for being the home of the most famous Padre: Tony Gwynn, who was honored May 9 with a statue at Lake Poway.

Everyone knows about Tony’s achievements on the field. The numbers Padres’ fans know by heart: .338 and 3,141. But in Poway, we got to see the regular side of him. The guy just getting some groceries at the store. The dad watching his kids play sports.

I got to see a lot of Tony the dad at Poway High in the year when his son (then going by Anthony) was a senior and the best player on the varsity basketball team and I was a sophomore scrub on the JV team.

Since high school basketball season was during the MLB offseason, Tony was a regular at our games and could always be found up in the top row of the bleachers filming his son (Tony was famously an early adopter of video analysis).

With three family members in the Poway High basketball program that year (Anthony, his nephew Chasant a junior, and his daughter Anisha a freshman on the girls’ team), Tony gave the money to buy everyone in the basketball program that year matching Nike shoes in the school’s green colors. I still have my well-worn pair tucked away in a closet back home.

The shoes Tony Gwynn bought for all Poway High basketball players.–Photo: Dan McMenamin

He was mostly left alone at home games because to us he was just Tony the dad, but at away games, we would see a line stretching up the entire bleachers of people wanting autographs or just to pay their respects to Tony the future Hall of Famer who was always willing to interact with everyone despite just trying to watch his son play.

Anthony’s high school basketball career ended miraculously with a half-court shot at the buzzer in his final game to beat our rivals from Rancho Bernardo, a play that if it happened now would have had 20 cellphone videos of it and gone viral. If it was caught on tape at all though, it might be somewhere in Tony’s vaults.

You’ll have to trust me that it happened though.

A year later, Tony retired and had his son in the outfield for the ceremony. A year after that, I graduated from Poway High and left for Northern California.

Fast forward five years to 2007, and I was at a bar in Nor Cal with my best friend (a fellow Poway High grad and Padre fan) as we watched the team try to clinch a playoff spot in a game against the Brewers.

Trevor Hoffman had them an out away from doing it, but inexplicably in stepped Anthony, now going by Tony Jr. and a pro himself after playing college ball at his dad’s Alma mater, San Diego State.

With two strikes, the son of Poway’s finest laced a game-tying triple. The Padres of course ended up losing that game, the next one, and then the infamous Game 163 in Colorado.

The Padres have broken my heart a few more times in the intervening years, (looking at you, 2010!), but sadness about losses at the ballpark were nothing compared to the gut punch of June 16, 2014 when we all learned Tony had died of salivary gland cancer.

His loss was still keenly felt last month on May 9, which would have been his 57th birthday, as the Gwynn family helped unveil the 11-foot-tall statue of him at Lake Poway.

Instead of Tony the player holding a bat like his statue outside Petco Park, the statue in Poway is fittingly of Tony the dad holding his daughter Anisha as a young girl.

Blake Taylor of Normify was gracious enough to share his footage of the unveiling:

Tony Jr., who this year joined Fox Sports San Diego as a Padres analyst, wiped away tears when he spoke to the crowd at the unveiling ceremony. The memories he recalled also came from that senior year of high school and the green shoes his dad bought for everyone.

“It takes me back, now quite a few years ago, to my time at Poway High. That was really the time my dad and I, really the first time he got to see me athletically, seeing him up in the bleachers taping every basketball game,” he said. “It was really the only time he got to see me play because once baseball season came around, he was obviously doing his job, playing for the Pads.”

Tony Jr. continued, “My dad was a pretty simple individual, but secretly I think he lived vicariously through me being that I was much more of a showman than he was. I can remember him buying the shoes for our high school basketball teams, freshman, JV and varsity.  And that was his way of kind of being the showman that he never wanted to be outwardly. Our shoes were pretty, pretty nice, we were all matching and looked real good out there.”

Tony Jr. also said as a 17-year-old that he was pushing his dad to leave the Padres and have one last chance to win a World Series with a contender before retiring.

“It really didn’t hit me until he got inducted into the Hall of Fame,” Tony Jr. said. “To have the honor to say, ‘I did it one way, I did it with one team, and it was with the team I love.” And it always brings me back to Poway.”

“I get it, I totally get it now,” he said. “This wouldn’t be nearly as meaningful had he left even for that one year.”

Tony’s widow Alicia said, “I’d love to have Tony here but I know he’s shining on us. This is where he lived. This is where he loved and this is where he always wanted to be.”

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