What makes us have affections for athletes? We don’t know them. We’ve never even met them. So it’s not a personal connection. But it feels personal, especially when we lose one.
On Monday, Tony Gwynn, 54, a Hall of Fame outfielder who played his entire 20-season career for the San Diego Padres, died after battling cancer. When I heard the news my heart sank. I am not a Padres fan. I watched Gwynn play on TV no more than 10 or 15 times and never once in person, but it still hurt a little. Then I started seeing the flood of tributes to him from ESPN, local sportscasters, MLB.com, and even writers who never covered the Padres specifically. They spoke of his honesty, kindness to any who approached him, gentility, and respect. They weren’t paying tribute to a fallen ball player; they were paying tribute to a fallen friend. What was it about Tony Gwynn that made them feel that way?
He was one of the best hitters of the past 75 years. After he retired, he could have gone hitless in his next 1,180 at bats and still had a career average above .300. He hit above .350 during a five-season span … starting at age 35. He had four hits or more in 45 career games and multiple strikeouts in only 34 games. In 1995 he struck out only 15 times—that’s a good month for many hitters today. He was simply remarkable. But that’s not why people love him. Ty Cobb was amazing and people hated him. Wade Boggs was fantastic and largely forgettable. There was something unique about Tony.
What makes us love athletes is the same thing that makes us love Atticus Finch, Mr. Darcy, or Winnie the Pooh: story. More specifically, being the hero of a story. We’ve never met our favorite characters, but we know and love them. When a writer puts pen to paper to share a story about an athlete, he is making a personal introduction to the reader. Readers share these stories with friends over the watercooler, on Twitter, or at the ballpark. In our minds the character takes shape. The better the story, the more we know him. And the better the character, the more we like him.
Think of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Greg Maddux, Barry Bonds, Mike Trout, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Hull, or Patrick Roy. For many of us, just hearing these names elicits some feeling because we have a narrative for these athletes in our heads. For some, though, we have no feeling at all. That’s what happens when the story is missing. Stories are powerful to shape and form our minds and hearts.
Tony Gwynn was a great character who inspired rich stories. Athletes like him make the reader want to be better, to live well. That is what the best stories do. They exhibit nobility and goodness and express truth, even if it’s subtle. And the characters who display such characteristics the most are the ones we love best.