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Tony Gwynn signs autographs at a Fort Wayne Wizards game in May 1999.

Tony Gwynn: Say it ain't so

Fifty-four is not 24, and so there is no temptation today to say Tony Gwynn's whole life was ahead of him now that cancer has claimed him.

But the shock is nonetheless profound, because there are certain people -- ballplayers, almost all of them -- we tend to see as eternally youthful. It's how we remember them, first of all. And it's how, if they are very lucky, they simply move through life no matter how many decades pile up in their wake.

Gwynn was one of those guys, a man who made a living playing a child's game and who never lost the child's wonder in it. If we forever see him spraying hits to all fields for the San Diego Padres, it's because of the joy he seemed to derive from it, and the timelessness that joy always confers on those who know how to hold it fast.

Even if it occasionally eluded him.

The day I met Tony Gwynn 15 years ago, he was a weary man. The Padres were in town to play an exhibition against the Wizards, and Gwynn arrived snappish and out of sorts, sick of answering questions about his 3,000th hit, which was 30 raps away. And yet he managed to summon a smile when, once again, he was asked about it.

"I'm trying to have a sense of humor about it," he said. "The answer's varied from city to city. It starts out with 'Of course I'm honored to be with the 21 other guys and blah-blah-blah' to 'How do you think I'm gonna feel?', just to see if I could get a reaction."

Then he went on to say he actually answered the question that way back in San Diego. The TV guy who asked it "looked at me like 'I can't believe I'm doing an interview with this guy. What an idiot'," Gwynn said.

Then he laughed, of course, and said, look, the game wasn't meant to be like this, with all the attention focused on one man and his at-bats. But he got it. He understood. So he rolled with it.

"I've just gone out there and played," he said. "I have worried about it, and I haven't kept track of the numbers, because I know every day people are gonna come up to me and tell me what it is."

And then he laughed again. 'Cause, you know, that's baseball.

And what eternal child could stay mad at it for long?

Ben Smith's blog.