Webster Dictionary defines the word mentor as “a wise and trusted teacher”. I’ve also heard the word defined as someone who inspires, motivates, and leads. I’ve had many mentors over the years and last month, two of them passed away.
Casey Kasem was the host of the syndicated radio show “American Top 40″ for almost two decades. His show, broadcast to hundreds of radio stations across the country and around the world, would count down the 40 hottest songs on the Billboard Hot 100 music chart every week. Billboard was, and still is, the most authoritative magazine in the music business. It’s quite possible that Casey may have single-handedly gotten me interested in popular music which eventually lead me to becoming a DJ. Within a year of starting to listen to his weekly program, I went from probably not knowing who Elton John or the Rolling Stones were, to knowing practically every song on the radio, it’s current chart position, and little anecdotes about each tune and artist.
I was addicted. I can still remember my mom yelling across the house on Sunday mornings, “Ronnie, go play outside, it’s beautiful out!” My response was usually, “Casey’s not to #1 yet!”. I remember a family trip to Disney World one year in December. Unfortunately it coincided with Casey’s annual all-day Top 100 countdown of the biggest hits of the year. Guess what I was doing while the family was enjoying Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride? Yep, I was back at the hotel listening to the countdown and logging every song in my notebook. They all thought I was nuts! Still to this day, I track the weekly hits on the charts. It’s a lot easier now. Instead of sitting around a radio for hours, I just turn on my computer and go to billboard.com.
It’s quite possible that if you’re not a baseball fan, or don’t live in San Diego, you may not know about Tony Gwynn. Tony was to San Diego what John Elway is to Denver…a hometown sports icon. I call him “the greatest baseball player most people have never heard of”. Tony’s PR problem came from the fact that he played for a small market club (the San Diego Padres) that rarely made the playoffs and steered clear of the controversy that other high profile players are known for. Tony could have made tens of millions of dollars more over the course of his career by playing in L.A., New York, or other high-profile big budget teams. His home was in San Diego and he refused to leave and uproot his family. Rumor has it, he drove his agent crazy because he’d take less than he was worth just to stay in small-market San Diego.
What Tony did do was know how to hit. In fact, he did it better than anybody during the 80s and 90s. I remember going to Padres games when I lived in San Diego just to see Gwynn play. I think he got a hit every game I saw him, he was just that consistent. He amassed an insane .338 lifetime batting average, over 3,100 career hits, eight batting titles, flirted with .400 in 1994, and was hardly ever injured.
Tony was a student of the game. He’d spend hours watching videos of each of his at-bats to see how he could perfect his swing. Right up until he retired in 2001, he was an amazing hitter, finishing with 19 straight years with a .300 or better batting average. Tony left the game on top, still sharp, though knowing his best years were behind him. I remember seeing him play in his last game in Colorado that year against the Rockies. The Rockies fans graciously gave Gwynn a standing ovation for his final at-bat knowing they were witnessing a future Hall Of Famer. Most importantly, Gwynn was a people person. He’d always sign an autograph for a fan. He treated stadium janitors and batboys with the same respect as the team owners. The media loved him, as he always gave a great interview and was very generous with his time even after a rough Padres loss – which over the years, like my Rockies – happens more than victories.