Remembering Tony Gwynn

The first and only time I saw Tony Gwynn play in person was October 14, 1984. The Padres were in town to play the Detroit Tigers, at Tiger Stadium. I knew of him, but not in the way I know him today. Nobody did at that point. He was still the 24 year old kid fresh off his first NL batting title (.351 in 1984), far short of a Hall of Fame career and a legacy we now  rightfully celebrate.

This was before interleague play, before the internet, before MLB.tv. It’s the only time Tony played in Detroit, that series, and I’m proud to say I was there. Considering I was a die hard Tigers fan and this was game 5 of the World Series, my attention was mostly elsewhere.

He went 0-5 that day, uncharacteristically. Four Tigers pitchers combined to hold him in check. Willie Hernandez threw him a screwball he lofted to left field into the glove of Larry Herndon for the final out of the season, crowning the Tigers World Champions before my nine year old eyes. It remains the second greatest day of my life. Thanks for that, I suppose.

It was the closest he’d ever come to a World Series title, relatively speaking. Yes, he was there in 1998 when the Padres faced the Yankees, but that series was more lopsided than the Tigers triumph.

While he retired without the ultimate prize, that accomplishment is on the short list of things Tony Gwynn did not achieve during his 20 year career, all of which took place in a Padres uniform. And today, on the one year anniversary of his untimely death, the sound system at Petco Field, modern home of the Padres, failed for a spell during their matinee – leaving fans to enjoy the game with only the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd.

Don’t tell me that was coincidence.

If you were lucky enough to be a child of the 80’s and a baseball fan than you’ll know what I’m about to tell you is not hyperbole. Tony Gwynn was the best pure hitter of his generation, and it wasn’t even close.

Statistically speaking he was an anomaly in his time, and a stalwart in the annals of the games greatest players. He retired in 2001 with a .338 career batting average. The last major leaguer with a career mark there or above was Ted Williams, who last stepped foot on a big league diamond in 1960. He won 8 league batting titles, and hit .300 or better 19 years CONSECUTIVELY. The only player in MLB history to best him in these two feats was Ty Cobb.

I could dilate your pupils with his numbers at this point (don’t worry, I will later), and his digits are truly awe inspiring, but this captured only one essence of Tony as a player, and more importantly, as a man. His talent was equaled by his humanity, his personality, his insatiable desire to maximize his abilities, and his infamous, robust laughter. Chris Berman once described his laugh as “the best sound I’ve ever heard in my life”. Through the miracle of modern technology, a boy from metro Detroit who never shared personal space with Tony can validate through the litany of stories on the internet that this is plausible. If you don’t believe me go here or here.

Tony Gwynn was born in 1960 in Los Angeles, California. He excelled athletically from a young age, and played baseball and basketball for San Diego State University. He was drafted into the professional ranks of both sports on the same day in 1981, choosing baseball as his vocation. And aren’t we all so lucky he did so.

The San Diego Padres choose him in the 3rd round of the entry draft that year, # 58 overall, behind the likes of former college teammate Bobby Meachem, Ron Darling, Steve Lyons, Mark Gubicza and even John Elway. I imagine each team that passed him over would gladly reverse that decision in hindsight.

He rewarded the Padres with a legacy spanning two decades, and the community of San Diego by making it his home for the balance of his life. After retirement and first ballot enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Tony stayed in San Diego, returning to SDSU as the head baseball coach. Today the university announced the Tony Gwynn Classic will begin next year, an annual tournament honoring his memory.

He was a pure hitter. This is the complimentary equivalent of legend in baseball circles, a category undefined numerically, but universally agreed upon to include only the very best of the best at his craft. But this in solitude dismisses the fact he won five Gold Glove Awards and was widely regarded as an upper echelon defender throughout his career.

The only moment of game 5 of the 1984 World Series featuring Tony Gwynn I vividly remember in fact, aside from his final out, was a dazzling, leaping catch against the right field wall obscured from our view in real time by the charming configuration of Tiger Stadium. I saw it later on videotape, and it was a beauty.

But his trademark was and always will be what he could do with a piece of lumber. It didn’t matter who pitched to him, Tony Gwynn dictated the at bat, often with his archetype level swing producing a line drive base hit, 3,141 in total. He hit the ball “on the screws”, “on the sweet spot” “where it hurt” and every other analogy you can muster. And he hit it, over and over again, for 20 years.

In 10,232 career plate appearances Tony Gwynn struck out 434 times. This is unfathomable in the modern game.

For perspective, Mark Reynolds (currently of the St. Louis Cardinals) struck out 434 times in his 2009 & 2010 seasons alone for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Justin Morneau, the reigning National League batting champion, has struck out 474 times since the start of the 2009 season, a span stretching a mere 3,085 plate appearances.

Contact was in his blood. In his 20 year career Tony Gwynn struck out three times in a game ONCE. I’ll repeat that. Once. He struck out twice in a game only 34 times. He had four hits (or more) in a game 45 times. So statistically speaking, he was more likely to get four hits in a game than strikeout twice. In a sample size of more than 10,000 plate appearances. Please excuse me while I retrieve my jaw from the floor.

He did this in an era of relief specialists, night games, cross country travel, advanced scouting reports and a myriad of other modifiers his predecessors did not encounter. He did this (often) in a lineup where he was the only formidable threat. He did this in the steroid era, where a notable number of pitchers he faced were at least accused of cheating.

How did he do it?

He worked his ass off.

Between the tail end of his rookie season (1982) and the 1983 campaign, Tony embraced the concept of video study of his at bats. It began with him asking his wife to tape his games on their home VCR, so he could study his plate appearances after the fact. By the time he retired it was routine that each MLB team had an entire department, equipped with state of the art equipment, to provide players access to this method of study. He was a driving force in that development which has revolutionized the game.

Tony Gwynn was never afraid to ask for advice, despite winning four batting titles by the age of 29. His conversations with Ted Williams and Stan Musial and other greats on the art of hitting are legendary. Thanks to the likes of Bob Costas and Ken Burns, and others, many of these survive today, for all of us to revel in.

He knew his place in history, from a young age, and was relentless in his pursuit of excellence. The testimony for that statement comes in the form of four consecutive batting titles between the ages of 34-37. This is the time when most players are thinking about rocking chairs, and retirement beach houses. Tony was thinking about what Greg Maddux would throw him. And it worked. He hit .415 against Maddux in 107 career plate appearances, with zero strikeouts.

In two strike counts, widely accepted as the most difficult situation for a hitter, Tony hit .302 – 40 points higher than 2nd place on the list since the statistic has been calculated. The man in 2nd, serenely, is Wade Boggs, the closest contemporary of his era, who won five AL batting titles in seven years. Wade struck out more than 300 times more than Tony in a similar collection of plate appearances, for the record.

He hit .375 career in the World Series, finished in the top 10 in MVP voting seven times, hit .325 in more than 3,500 plate appearances vs. left handed pitching, hit .376 in games his team won, hit .351 with a full count, hit .444 with the bases loaded.

I repeatedly use the word hit to preface these statistics because that’s what he did. He hit. His hand-eye coordination was the stuff of legend. His preparation without equal, and his results legitimately stake his claim as the best hitter of his lifetime.

If that were the totality of his story, that would be enough to inspire tales passed down generation to generation.

But he was more than that.

He was a man who loved his wife, raised his sons, took time for fans and writers and fellow players, current and former, played catch with and comforted batboys and clubhouse attendants. He never allowed his status to change who he was. A good man, who loved baseball.

In my youth my Father and I collected baseball cards and autographs. This was the 1980’s, before it was sullied by over-production and inflated prices. We stood in line for signatures from Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Joe Dimaggio, Ted Williams, Ernie Banks, and so many more. We never paid more than $5 for an autograph, and if you asked a player to add his uniform number, or take a picture with you, they did it with a smile (and without a surcharge). I never met Tony Gwynn. I wish I had. By all accounts he was a man worth meeting, a man who would take time to sign your baseball card through the fence after waiting three hours for him, a player worth idolizing, which I did from a distance.

In preparing to write this piece I re-read the heartwarming story by David Johnson on what it was like to be the bat boy for Tony Gwynn in 1991. It’s among the finest first person accounts of athlete interaction I’ve read, and if you haven’t read it, go do so right now.

David said it best when he said:

“When kids have heroes, they tend to build them up into something unsustainable, something doomed to crumble, and years later, as adults, they look back on the their old enthusiasms with gentle condescension. On Monday, I turned on my computer and the words “Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn dies at 54″ hit me square in the chest. I lost my breath for a minute. In that instant, dozens, hundreds of memories of Tony flashed through my mind. And each one remains good, clean, and perfect in its own way.”

Tony Gwynn left the game better than he found it. He did his job with a grace and commitment the current stable of MLB players could, and should, learn from. With a bat in his hands he was a man among boys, and without one he was a lead by example human being that deserves our heartfelt nostalgia.

He published that story shortly after Tony Gwynn died a year ago today, leaving a gaping hole in the fabric of post World War II baseball lore. I read it again today, for about the 50th time, just as I saw a tweet from Kirk D Kenney, sportswriter for the San Diego Union-Tribune, saying the sound system briefly went down during the Padres Matinee game today, leaving the crowd to hear the game through only the crack of the bat, and the roar of the crowd.

Don’t tell me that was coincidence.