Dan Smith still talks about the experience like it happened yesterday.
It was Aug. 7, 1999, and the Montreal Expos rookie pitcher was standing behind home plate during an early session of batting practice. Just a day earlier, Smith served San Diego Padres legend Tony Gwynn his 3,000th hit, and he was still trying to wrap his mind around what it all meant.
That was when Gwynn approached Smith and introduced himself.
“He said, ‘whether you like it or not, you’re a big part of what happened last night so I want to give you a few things for you to remember the night. It’s going to be a part of history and something you’ll remember the rest of your career,’ ” the Girard High School graduate recalled Gwynn saying to him.
“He was right. He gave me a jersey that he signed. He gave me a bat. He gave me about a dozen baseballs. We had a nice conversation about his career, and I got to pick his brain a little bit about hitting. He showed a genuine interest in who I was as a person, and he showed a genuine interest in my career. I’ll never forget that.”
Gwynn died Monday of oral cancer at the age of 54. The Hall of Famer finished his career with 3,141 hits, a .338 career batting average and eight batting titles.
“I was shocked and saddened,” Smith said. “I knew that Tony had been battling some health issues, but I was not aware to the extent that it was. Obviously, 54 years old is way too young to die.
“Tony was a class act, and a guy who I think everyone would agree was a human being who people would want to model themselves after in any profession.”
Smith pitched four seasons in the majors, finishing with a 7-12 record and a 5.23 ERA. He retired 20 consecutive batters and earned a win against the Boston Red Sox in his major league debut.
Still, Smith’s major league career is probably best remembered for giving up the historic hit to Gwynn.
“It was a 1-2 slider with a guy on first,” Smith said. “He barely got it. He hit it good, but he had to go down and get it. It was a good pitch. In true Tony Gwynn fashion, the better the pitch the better he was at going down and digging it out. He reached down and slapped it up the middle ... It was a good pitch, but it was a great piece of hitting. I think it was pretty appropriate that he went down and manufactured a base hit behind in the count like he did 2,900 other times in his career.
“It was my favorite hit that I ever gave up, obviously.”
A few weeks later, the Expos were on a road trip to San Diego. Ironically, the Padres’ promotion that night was a Tony Gwynn 3,000th hit poster giveaway.
“I show up to the locker room the first day, and in my locker there was a framed poster of him getting the hit that said, ‘Dan, it was a good pitch — Tony Gwynn,’ ” Smith said. “So even a few weeks later, he saw that poster and thought it would be something good to give to the kid for something him to remember the night by. He was just a class human being.”
Smith admired Gwynn, who enjoyed a 20-year career with the Padres from 1982-2001, even as a child. He and his younger brother, Dustin Smith, used to spend hours in the backyard playing wiffleball dreaming that they’d one day grow up to be a major leaguer like Gwynn.
Dustin Smith went to to play professionally in the Texas Rangers organization and remains a scout for the Rangers.
“Every morning, we started by picking teams,” Dan Smith said. “And I can assure you that Tony Gwynn was one of the guys who we pretended to be in the backyard every single day. He not only was one of the best in the game while we were kids, but he was one of the best to ever play the game.”
Smith said he is honored to share a connection with one of the all-time greats and the best hitter he ever faced.
Gwynn hit above .300 in every complete season and struck out only 434 times in 10,232 plate appearances. He struck out three times in a game only once in his 2,440-game career.
“If you faced Tony Gwynn, he was the best hitter you ever faced,” Smith said. “Because nobody faced Gwynn and Ted Williams. They’re 1A and 1B in my mind and anybody who knows anything about baseball. If you faced Tony Gwynn, you faced the best.”
Smith’s major league baseball career ended in 2003. He now lives in rural Girard and serves as the chief operating officer for Watco Companies in Pittsburg, but his link to Gwynn has remained.
“What made it really meaningful wasn’t that it’s a trivia question, but the conversations that I got to have with Tony after the fact,” Smith said. “I had several conversations with him throughout that year and when I crossed paths through the rest of my career.
“I had the chance to come across him a few years ago at a non-baseball related function. He still felt the need to say hi and talk with me and ask how my family was. By no means were we friends, but for him to go out of his way to remember a guy who threw a pitch ... It means a lot to me. It just shows what kind of guy he was.”