As a younger fan and collector growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, it should be no surprise that players like Will Clark, Jose Canseco, and Rickey Henderson were my favorites. I'd guess that any kid's first favorite players probably come from their local team.
But as I learned about baseball outside of my local neighborhood, I discovered Tony Gwynn. My interest in him was due to his dedication and his commitment to being great.
I read a magazine article some time in the early 1990s about Gwynn and his approach to batting practice. Every pitch was practice to accomplish something - hit a ground ball, get a line drive out of the infield, make successful hit-and-run contact. While the home run was really becoming the number one stat in the news, Tony stuck with what worked for him. And you are probably aware of all the time he spent studying pitchers before games as well.
Unfortunately, I never got to see him play in person, as far as I know. Through the 1990s I appreciated him but I was certainly caught up in the Frank Thomas-Ken Griffey Jr-Cal Ripken saga. (I got to see Griffey and Thomas play in 2007 and 2008, respectively.)
I followed along in 1994 as he hovered near .400, and I was very glad to hear he was inducted to the Hall of Fame with Cal Ripken in 2007. I visited the Hall of Fame that year, but it was before the ceremony so I didn't see his plaque.
In 2011, I took a trip to the LA area. I visited a bunch of baseball landmarks, including SDSU's Hall of Fame and baseball field. After taking a few pictures of the field, as I was walking back to my car, I spotted a man getting out of his.
It was Him.
I nodded hello, he nodded back. I never exchanged words with him. I never asked for an autograph or a photo. But for two seconds I was having a non-verbal conversation with one of my heroes.
And that's how I'll always remember him. A normal guy, with his normal car, going to do his job.