Nick Hornby wrote in "Fever Pitch" (Quick aside, don't let the Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore movie be your only knowledge of this source material. Nick Hornby's book, memoir-esq about being a die-hard fan of the English Premiere League Club Arsenal is appointment reading for anyone who considers themselves more than a casual fan of a team) that the longest relationship he had ever had, outside the one with his own parents, was with his beloved soccer club, Arsenal. In a poignant, and perhaps an all to close to home moment, while arguing with his girlfriend over his borderline obsession with Arsenal, Hornby rants about why sports, and the outcome of these games matter so much. His point? That he had wanted an Arsenal championship for longer than he has ever wanted anything in his life. For a man in his 40's, this relationship has lasted more than 30 years. Finally ending with this line when his girlfriend retorts, as all who are not sports fans inevitably will, by saying it's "only a game": "Cause it quite clearly isn't 'only a game.' I mean if it was do you honestly think I'd care this much?"
There have been multiple times as a fan of various teams where I have wondered aloud "why do I care this much about this?" I have often wished I simply didn't care, thus avoiding the sharp pings of sorrow that follow any excruciating loss. I can remember with vivid memories the losses that really stung. Arizona losing to Illinois in the Elite Eight after blowing a 12 point lead with under 4 mins to play. The Chargers, with victory literally in their hands against New England in the Divisional Playoffs, having it all taking away. And the slow burn that was the 2010 Padres 10-game losing streak.
But the worst loss that I've ever experienced as a fan pales in comparison to the news that trickled out of San Diego on Tuesday, February 14th. Tony Gwynn's cancer had returned and he was undergoing another surgery. The headline, which I first read on Twitter, hit me like a ton of bricks. The details of the story only furthered the bad news. The tumor was wrapped around a nerve; if they remove the nerve he may never be able to move the right side of his face again.
It is an odd feeling to think of your childhood heroes as mortal. Of course they are and no one truly believes they are immune from harm. But it filled me with more emotions than simply "I feel bad for this person I admire." Tony Gwynn, like the Padres, has been the longest relationship I've had outside of my immediate family. As a Little Leaguer, I attempted to mimic his swing (despite being right handed and more a defensive specialist than anything.) I've met the man 4 times that I can recall, all passing moments that were mere blurs to him but which are immortalized in my memory (Or in one case, in wood and glass. One more quick aside, doing photo day one year I, no more than 16 or 17, got my picture taken with Gwynn. If you've ever been to one of these photo days you will know that the experience is akin to herding cattle. A long line of fans is constantly moving as you stop and take pictures with players. The meetings with the players are seconds at most. My picture of Tony Gwynn with me was later sent to Tony Gwynn himself by my mother, asking for an autograph. It was returned, signed and now sits in a frame along with his SI cover "The Best Hitter Since Ted Williams").
But more than the dread I felt for Tony Gwynn was this thought. I have reached the age where the people I admire are starting to show their age. Pearl Jam's "Ten" is 20 years old. Today would have been Kurt Cobain's 45th birthday. It's been 18 years since "Pulp Fiction" came out, and Tony Gwynn is in the fight of his life, again.
There will come a day when he is no longer with us. I remember how much my Dad was affected by the death of Mickey Mantle. I know that my mother is saddened that there is only two surviving Beatle left and he is nearing 70.
But this past news told me one thing. It's not just a game. They aren't just players on television screen. If they were, reading that Tony Gwynn is having cancer surgery wouldn't matter so much to me.
As of this writing, I am happy to say that the surgery apparently went very well. A nerve from his shoulder was placed in his cheek providing him with movement to the right side of this face. The road back I'm sure is long, and arduous. And one day there won't be a road back to take. But here is hoping that somehow, Gwynn knows that we are all pulling for him. And how important he is to us.
Get Well Soon.