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Unexpected brush with greatness, c. 1998

A friend on Facebook shared a story where he and a mutual friend of ours ran into Willie Mays at a ballpark. He used the anecdote to solicit stories of “unexpected brushes with greatness.” Here’s what I shared.

I was walking down Michigan Avenue with my sister and a friend visiting from San Diego; I think this was in 1998. My sister nudged me and looked over her shoulder.

“I think that’s Tony Gwynn!” she said. I thought she was nuts, but then I remembered that the Padres were in town. I looked behind us and the first thing I noticed was That Laugh – that unmistakable gurgling laugh of his – and then saw him lingering in front of the Nike store, talking to an older guy that I suspect was the Padres’ hitting coach at the time, Merv Rettenmund.

My sister, her friend, and I kept nudging each other to go talk to him, and I finally caved and ran back. Gwynn sighed and didn’t seem thrilled to be recognized, but I still babbled at him about how I was a big fan, that I grew up in Chula Vista but moved to Chicago a couple of years before – to which he replied, “What the hell did you do that for?”

He agreed to sign a copy of a newspaper I had because I didn’t have anything else for him to sign, and this was well before the days of cellphone cameras. And then he went on his way. It was a fleeting surreal moment to run into a hometown hero well out of context of my actual hometown.