By Jamar Hudson / @jamarhudson
One of the most telling signs of aging is when a prominent figure of your childhood passes away.
That feeling is accentuated even more when that person makes his or her transition at what is considered a “young” age.
For me, over the past couple of years, the deaths of notable sports and pop-culture figures such as Maya Angelou, Roger Ebert, Chris Kelly, Hector Camacho, Junior Seau and Al Davs — all of whom were recognizable figures in the public eye since my adolescence — have not only reminded me of how old I’m getting, but in some ways each of those deaths, and many others this space does not allow me to mention for brevity’s sake, has made me reflect on how my views and interests have changed, matured and even dissolved over the years.
Those feelings surfaced again on Monday when the news spread of the passing of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who died from cancer.
He was only 54 years old.
As Matt Whitener so eloquently detailed in his piece, the legacy of Mr. Padre, both on and off the field, is one of legend. For those of us who grew up watching him and appreciating his play on the field and his professionalism off the field, we were fortunate to have witnessed what I like to call humble greatness — a characteristic that is rare in the all-about-me age of professional athletics that exists today.
And while I could spend the rest of this space echoing those mind-boggling stats that have been well-documented by many, for me Gywnn’s death reminded me of the game I used to love — Major League Baseball.
A few weeks ago, I tweeted, “I have had zero interest in baseball so far this year. My 10 year old self is somewhere shaking his head.” I could have easily sent that tweet out last year, and the year before that, and the year before that.
You get the picture.
See, growing up in the ’90s, there wasn’t a day that went by during the spring and summer in which I wouldn’t at least catch part of a baseball game. Whether it was after school watching the Cubs on WGN or tuning in to TBS in the evenings to watch the Braves, baseball during those days was a regular part of most sports fans’ viewing rotation. There were marketable players like Ken Griffey Jr. and stars like Cal Ripken Jr. who transcended just their play on the diamond. And for the African-American community, we had a core group of players from Frank Thomas to Barry Bonds to, yes, Tony Gwynn whom we looked up to and patterned our little league games after.
But now? I really don’t care about what happens. I couldn’t tell you the last time I’ve watched a game from start to finish, and the only way I know what’s happened on the diamond the night before is when I catch the highlights as background noise on SportsCenter in the mornings. For me, it’s as if the big leagues have gone from a traditional part of summer to just something to pass the time and entertain until kickoff in September.
That’s my reality now. And it saddens me because I used to be in love with baseball.
Tony Gwynn’s death made me reflect on a time when, aside from Michael Jordan, baseball was everything to me. As I reflected, I wondered what happened to that feeling that I once thought would never fade. What has become of the sport that for years was described as America’s pastime?
As I write this, the last great memory that pops in my head of watching baseball was when Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s single-season home run record*. That seems like a lifetime ago.
Now that the NBA Finals have wrapped up, I’ve been sitting and flipping channels looking for something good to watch on TV, not even considering stopping on ESPN, MASN or the MLB Network to watch a few innings or, at the very least, one trip through the batting order. Instead, my focus has shifted to minicamps and the false hope that somehow my team will finish 12-4 in the upcoming season.
There’s no doubt that the NFL has as a stronghold on the No. 1 spot and is only getting stronger. And with LeBron in his prime, along with other young stars such as Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, the NBA appears to be in good hands for years to come. That leaves baseball a distant third and seemingly caught in a rundown of uncertainty.
From PEDs to the ridiculous perennial discussion about why there aren’t more blacks in MLB, in recent years, the focus on baseball as been less and less about what actually happens inside the white lines and more about its image and crisis management.
Maybe that’s what’s lost me. Maybe that’s indirectly turned me off.
It saddens me because there are so many fond memories of baseball I have from childhood to my teenage years. I played the sport, loved the sport and watched it religiously. But like many, I find myself nowadays simply checking the box scores periodically to check standings and see who’s doing what. From June to August, I’m more concerned with counting down the days until Week 1.
Growing up, Tony Gwynn was one of the boys of summer I idolized. It seems like in the blink of an eye, we’re approaching the midseason classic. Had I cared, I probably would’ve noticed. But I don’t.
If we’re lucky, we’ll see another great hitter like the late Tony Gwynn in our lifetimes. And if I’m lucky, that love for the game will be rekindled and I’ll be able to enjoy watching that happen.
I can only hope.