Editor’s Note: Baseball Hall of Famer and San Diego Padres icon Tony Gwynn died on June 16 due to oral cancer. He was 54. Although Gwynn was a native Californian, he was also a Hoosier: He had a home in Fishers, where he spent as much time as he could and maintained multiple business ventures based in Indianapolis. This feature from our archives tells how Gwynn came to call Indy his second home.
It’s a typical Thursday afternoon at the Fishers Wal-Mart, and no one seems to notice a thirtysomething guy with big-as-your-waist biceps and bulging thighs. He thanks the clerk, hops into a 4X4 with California plates, and heads home.
A few months later in San Diego, the same man arrives at a mall to do some Christmas shopping. As he searches for the Barbie Doll section of a toy store, a couple of 10-year-old boys do a double-take and whisper excitedly. They rush off, only to reappear moments later with newly purchased baseballs in hand. Obliging their requests for autographs, he scrawls his name on the horsehide and within minutes is stampeded by more kids and used-to-be kids. He takes it in stride. “I’ve signed 15 or 20 baseballs just to get a few Barbie Dolls for my nieces,” he says.
A standout in San Diego, inconspicuous in Indy–this tale of two cities typifies the life of Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, a seven- time Nation al League batting champ who’s as big as they come in the big leagues. Many stars of his stature spend their days ducking out rear entrances and sprinting to waiting limousines amid a crush of frenzied fans and security-guard buffers. But Anthony Keith Gwynn has found a better escape: During the offseason, he packs his bags and trades the balmy climes of his native Southern California for some downtime in Indianapolis.
The notion of leaving the Golden State for the Hoosier chill seems bizarre, like an ATA commercial run in reverse. Even the state tourism division will concede that winter isn’t the prime time to wander Indiana – but that’s not the point. Far more attractive is the fact that the average Indianapolis resident wouldn’t know Tony Gwynn from Tony the Tiger.
Not that Gwynn is offended; to the contrary, he cherishes the ability to slip into Marsh for a gallon of milk without creating a bigger line than the cashiers’. Furthermore, in an era when outstanding athletes are often overshadowed by outlandish athletes, it’s to Gwynn’s credit that he is neither a Neon-Deion-variety hotshot nor a Rodmanesque cartoon character. True, his face isn’t universally recognized, but the name he’s made for himself was earned on the playing field, not from wearing hair dye and tattoos.
In a statistics-heavy national pastime, Gwynn’s numbers could fill a too-fat-for-the-beach paperback. Only Honus Wagner has won more National League batting titles than Gwynn, who boasts Major League Baseball ‘s top cumulative batting average over the past five and 10 years. And, after 14 seasons with the Padres, he’s the all-time club leader in batting, hits, runs, doubles, triples, stolen bases, runs batted in and games played.
Californians also love Gwynn because he’s a local kid who made good. Born in L.A. and raised in Long Beach, he played baseball and basketball at San Diego State University, where he still holds the all-time assist record for the Aztec hoopsters. As a tribute to his versatility, he was drafted by baseball’s San Diego Padres and the NBA’ s San Diego (now Los Angeles) Clippers.
Best of all, Gwynn exemplifies the nice-guys-finish-first syndrome. Not only has he won baseball’s top honor for community service, the Branch Rickey Award, but–unlike some players whose suitcases bear more stickers than an Indy car–the veteran outfielder has actually put down roots in San Diego. The 36-year-old (called “Pops” by his younger teammates) has spent all of his 14 major-league years as a Padre, a rarity in these days of free agency.
Not surprisingly, when San Diego State University completes its renovation of its $8 million ballpark, it will be dubbed Tony Gwynn Stadium. San Diego’s bars and restaurants sport Tony Gwynn cardboard cutouts, and true San Diegans not only can identify Tony and his family members, but also their vehicles–as discovered by a female family friend who borrowed one and was promptly arrested because she wasn’t Mrs. Tony Gwynn and bore no proof that she hadn’t stolen the ride.
None of this, of course, relates to Indianapolis, and were it not for happenstance, the Gwynns might never have seen the city except from the air. Gwynn and his wife, Alicia, found their way to Indy via the liner notes of a compact disc pressed by a Christian gospel group known as the Rev. John P. Kee and the New Life Community Choir. Alicia Gwynn had bought the disc because some kids at a local church wanted to hear Kee do his musical thing. Afterward, as she’s prone to do when it comes to young folks, Alicia set out to find Kee and bring him to San Diego.
Alicia’s first call was to Kee’s lawyer and agent, Max L. Siegel of Indianapolis. That call led to a free Kee youth concert in San Diego, a personal visit by Siegel to make sure everything went well, and a Gwynn/Siegel business teamup that’s sparked two Indiana companies, one philanthropic foundation and a basketball crazy hideout for a certain baseball star. It was also, as they say in Casablanca, “the beginning of a beautiful friend ship.”
In 1992, Tony and Alicia Gwynn were ripe for some expert assistance. Despite making millions, Gwynn and his wife had filed for bankruptcy in 1987–in part because of a dispute with their financial managers. From then on, no one touched the bucks but Alicia. She developed computer skills, learned money management and ran the burgeoning family bank account. They got by, but always hoped for some trustworthy help.
They found what they were seeking in young Siegel, an entrepreneurial lawyer whose claim to fame was a dad who inked the Beatles to their first U.S. recording contract and a mom who sang the blues professionally. After cutting his teeth at the law firm of Baker & Daniels, the Notre Dame-educated attorney was fending for himself as an agent and legal counsel for Christian gospel singers. Then Tony and Alicia Gwynn called his number.
Siegel helped the Gwynns set up a financial management team in 1992. Then he and Alicia launched Studio 815, a recording studio in Downtown Indianapolis. Then he helped Alicia grow A.G. Sport Inc., a San Diego and Indianapolis firm that design s and manufactures licensed logo merchandise for sports franchises, corporations and other clients. Along the way, he helped Tony negotiate a new four-year, $10 million contract with the Padres.
But the biggest deal of all, says Siegel’s law partner, Mickey Carter, was the trusting relationship that followed. “Tony’s well-liked by everybody, but he doesn’t have a lot of close friends,” says
Carter. “He hangs out with people from high school and college, a small pool of people who are very loyal.
“But with Max, it’s different. We’ve been to games in Chicago and St. Louis, and we’ll go out to eat afterward with Tony. One night, Alicia said that in 15 years, she could remember only one time Tony went out after a game with a teammate. He’s a very private individual. But he always goes out with Max.”
Last October, Gwynn even postponed post-season Achilles tendon surgery so he could be in his agent’s Indianapolis wedding–a ceremony performed by another prominent Siegel client, Green Bay Packers star Reggie White, who also happens to be an ordained minister. “I wanted to be there for Max, but I wanted to walk down the aisle normally, without a cast,” says Gwynn.
With increasingly frequent visits to Studio 815, A.G. Sport and Siegel’s law offices, the Gwynns and their two children began to grow fond of Indianapolis. In the midst of a 1993 Indiana snowstorm, they went house hunting and bought what Tony calls a “pretty normal ” 6,000-square-foot, two-story, brick-faced, five-bedroom beauty with “a couple of fireplaces and a patio” in Fishers. The family goes there whenever their schedule permits.
“My whole career, I’ve wanted a house where I could just be myself,” says Tony. “Indiana’s got great college basketball, great professional teams. I don’t like to get a lot of attention, and in Indy, I do things normal people do.”
When he’s not at Wal-Mart, Gwynn swings a mean club on his favorite golf courses, watches sports on his satellite driven television and competes aggressively, friends say–at video games with his kids. For fine dining, the Gwynns favor Kona Jack’s and Daddy Jack’s, says Siegel. “But to let you in on a little secret,” he whispers, “Tony’s a big Taco Bell guy.”
“I’m a homebody,” Gwynn admits. “I hit the places most people hit.”
Like most people in this area, he’s a big fan of the Colts, particularly fellow San Diego State product Marshall Faulk. So, two years ago, Gwynn went to Colts camp for a casual visit just before their game in Miami. Then coach Ted Marchibroda, who knows a future Hall of Farner when he sees one, asked Gwynn to deliver a little pep talk to the boys.
“I said, ‘But I don’t know nothin’ about football,” Gwynn recalls. “I watch it, but I don ‘t know what they gotta do to win.” Despite his nervousness, Gwynn stepped up and took his best shot.
“If you have the will to win, you can win,” he told the brawny assembly. “No one’s expecting you to go down there and beat the Dolphins, but you can do it.”
“That Sunday I fired up the satellite dish, and they’re down like 21-3 at the half,” says Gwynn. “But Harbaugh brought ’em back. They won that game. That’s one of the few moments anything like that has happened in Indy.” One small talk for Gwynn, one giant leap for Captain Comeback.
It wasn’t the last time Pops popped up at an Indianapolis sporting event. One day last season, Siegel recalls, Gwynn agreed to ink a few autographs and throw out the game ball during a Pacers contest. But Gwynn puts it more humbly, saying, “I got to throw out the ball,” and “They let me sign autographs.”
That’s no act, says his agent. “He was so excited, he didn’t even want the Pacers to pay him,” Siegel says. “Sometimes he’s just like a kid. We were at a golf tourney once, and Tony wanted to get Oscar Robertson’s autograph. But he was too embarrassed to ask.” (Siegel got it for him.)
Three years after establishing his digs in the Heartland, Gwynn laments his lack of Snow Belt R & R. “I haven’t spent as much time there as I’d like,” he says. “The last two years I’ve had to rehab some injury. This year’s no exception. I like being back East. The pace is a little bit slower there.”
Right now, the pace for Tony Gwynn is picking up dramatically. Alicia has her companies to run. The kids are active in San Diego schools and sports. There’s also a Tony Gwynn baseball camp, a new contract to negotiate, spring training in Arizona and that eighth batting title to chase. Meanwhile, the part-time residents are quietly doing their part for needy Hoosiers who live here year-round.
Through their Indiana-based Tony and Alicia Gwynn Foundation, they’ve purchased a block of houses near the Old North side. This spring they’ll begin rehabilitation and construction to convert them in to homes and schools and workplaces in an attempt to give pregnant teens and the guys who got them that way a better start for their babies.
Siegel and Carter also want to arrange an Indy Tony Gwynn golf tournament this summer. They hope to match their success in San Diego, where his namesake tourney annually raises several hundred grand for local causes. But mostly, the Gwynns would like more Indiana time so they can be regular folks.
“We like the snow,” says Alicia. “Sure, we love the sun in San Diego, but it’s nice to enjoy a winter too. In San Diego, our time is tied up. We love working with the charities and stuff, but sometimes, you need a place to get your inner serenity back. We go to Fishers and just kick back. We hardly leave the house–we just really, really relax.”
“I like to get out and shovel my driveway like anybody else,” adds her husband. “The first time I was back there, not a soul knew I was there. I thought, ‘Great, this is great!’ When I’m in Indianapolis, I can pretty much be anonymous. I can do the things I used to do.”
So attention, Wal-Mart shoppers: Next time you’re cruising the aisle behind a guy with big biceps and bulging thighs, speak not. For even if it is Tony Gwynn, and he’s too nice to tell you no, he’d rather pay for his purchase than sign dozen s of baseballs.
“I just want to be normal again,” says the occasional Hoosier. “It’s not normal to be shopping and have people yelling just your name in the aisles.”
This article appeared in the February 1997 issue.