McGRATH: Gwynn, Welch, Burgin are three tough outs to process

Written By BY DAN McGRATHFor Sun-Times Media Posted: 06/22/2014, 02:33am
Array Tony Gwynn, who died this week at 54, and Bob Welch (above), who died at 57 a week earlier, were polar opposites except that both were respected and admired. | GETTY IMAGES

The Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal blew up sky-high the same weekend Joe Frazier died, so Smokin’ Joe was collateral damage. An unwilling foil for Muhammad Ali’s self-centered showmanship and charm, Frazier was nonetheless a noble warrior and a true champion in a distinguished era for boxing. Acknowledgements of that were lost amid the awful details and grim repercussions of Sandusky’s perversity.

News cycles are like that — unpredictable and uncontrollable. I was still trying to process Bob Welch’s passing, at 57, when word came that Tony Gwynn had died at 54. The remarkable outpouring of admiration and appreciation for Gwynn overshadowed the memory of what a tough, talented pitcher Welch was, and a good guy besides. Hard times for us baseball geezers who saw both of them in their prime.

I never bought into the old celebrity parable about death coming in threes, but when Bob Welch, Tony Gwynn and Dave Burgin leave us within a week, maybe there’s something to it.

Burgin probably isn’t known to most people reading this, but trust me, the world is a less interesting place with his departure. He was a force of nature in a newsroom, among the last of a vanishing breed of editors who truly gave a rip about the content of his newspaper and was hell-bent on presenting it in a way that made readers care, too.

Burgin spent part of his nomadic career as a Tribune Co. employee but never made it to Chicago to run the mother ship. That disappointed him — he would have enhanced the rich history of what once was a great newspaper town, but Dave was too passionate to be political and a little rough around the edges for the corporate suits in charge at Tribune Tower.

Every paper he ever ran, though, was smarter, livelier and better for his presence.

Spotting and nurturing talent was Burgin’s specialty: Pulitzer Prize twin towers Maureen Dowd and Mary Schmich were among his discoveries, and if Ray Ratto were typing in any city other than insular San Francisco, he’d be Jim Murray — the guy can make a laundry receipt read funny.

I never worked for Burgin, but I competed against him, which was nearly as stimulating, even when he exposed me for the clueless know-it-all I was as a neophyte editor. He’d done me wrong, but it helped me. We became friends after the dust settled. I liked him, and I respected him greatly.

Same for Gwynn and Welch, despite polar-opposite personalities. Whereas the ever-cheerful Gwynn was accommodating and accessible to all comers, Welch was more guarded, never comfortable as the center of attention.

He was just 21 on the evening of his powder-river showdown with Reggie Jackson, and maybe not ready for the spotlight that World Series moment cast upon him. Some of the antics that led to treatment for alcohol abuse made their way into the papers, much to Welch’s embarrassment, and after he got sober, he preferred to keep reporters at a wary arm’s length on personal matters.

But he’d talk pitching, and you’d find him at his locker, win or lose, honest and accountable, a stand-up guy in good times or bad. Who wouldn’t want to talk pitching with an artisan who was 65 games above .500 (211-146) for his career, with a 3.47 ERA and a Cy Young Award as his reward for a splendid 27-6 season in 1990?

How an athlete is viewed in his own clubhouse is often the best measure of his character, and Bob Welch was revered as a teammate.

The reverence for Tony Gwynn extended beyond the San Diego Padres to pretty much everyone who ever made his acquaintance, and no wonder — at a time when many pro athletes seemed to work at being self-absorbed jerks, Gwynn was a genuinely good guy.

Skeptics might have suspected it was an act to burnish an image, but then you read David Johnson’s touching recollection of a year spent in Gwynn’s company and you learn that Padres batboys were among those he treated like special friends.

Or Tyler Kepner’s eloquent New York Times account of his landing an interview with Gwynn as an awkward teenager, then seeing a 20-year friendship develop over a simple and mutual love of baseball.

World-class curmudgeon Keith Olbermann doesn’t betray much emotion beyond cynical bemusement, but there were tears in his eyes as he saluted Gwynn on his ESPN show Tuesday night and endeavored to explain what set him apart.

‘‘What you hoped Tony Gwynn was like,’’ Olbermann said, ‘‘he was like.’’

Safe home, guys.

Browse More 'Uncategorized'