Tony Gwynn was a hit on and off the field

Written By BY CHRIS DE LUCA Posted: 07/18/2014, 06:13am
Array San Diego Padres' right fielder Tony Gwynn tips his batting helmet to the crowd at San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium after winning his sixth National League batting title during the last game of the season against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sunday Oct. 1, 1995. Gwynn finished the season with a .368 average, 22 points better than Dodgers' catcher Mike Piazza. (AP Photo/Kent Horner)

You could talk about the 3,141 hits, the .338 career batting average, the eight batting titles, but those numbers could never sum up Tony Gwynn.

Two things stand out: That unmistakable Tony Gwynn laugh. It resonated through the San Diego Padres clubhouse, and once you heard it, no matter your current mood, it forced you to smile.

And there was that unmistakable Tony Gwynn drive. He was NEVER satisfied.

He finished one season hitting .370 and knew he should have hit .371. He once went 2-for-4 during a Padres victory in 1994 — was hitting .392 at the time — and burst out of the clubhouse, bat in hand, scowl on face, uniform still on, as reporters started to file in.

“Tony, where are you going,” I asked the only Padre worth interviewing that day.

“Need to go to the cage,” he barked over his shoulder. “I ain’t hittin’ squat.”

Of course.

Gwynn died Monday after a long battle with cancer. He was 54.

Baseball lost more than a Hall of Famer. Gwynn was a true ambassador of the game and it’s hard to say anyone loved baseball more than Gwynn. He used to satisfy every autograph seeker in the hot sun of Yuma, Arizona — the God-awful spring training home to the Padres for so many years — while lesser teammates (“scrubbinies,” Gwynn called them) skulked by to their cars.

Once he retired, he had a permanent seat in any television booth in baseball, but Gwynn decided to coach his alma mater San Diego State team. This was about love, not a paycheck.

He was the best pure hitter of his era, and he never took it for granted. Late in his career, he got to spend time with Ted Williams, who wanted so much to talk hitting with a genius, and Gwynn barely let Teddy Ballgame squeeze in a question because he had so many of his own.

Opponents, managers, coaches, broadcasters and a few jealous teammates dismissed Gwynn as a natural hitter. Nothing infuriated Gwynn more. Nothing came naturally to Gwynn, who honed his skills hitting walnuts in the backyard of his Long Beach, California, home as a kid.

He could have played in the NBA, getting drafted out of college in the 10th round by Donald Sterling’s San Diego Clippers. But Gwynn was taken in the third round of the baseball draft that June, and there was no question where his heart would take him.

Gwynn, whose 1984 Padres broke the hearts of Cubs fans, was a true five-tool player. He had a deadly arm in right field, he won five Gold Gloves, stole 56 bases in 1987 and always claimed he could have been a home run hitter had he been willing to sacrifice his average.

But the average was paramount to Gwynn.

He was one of the first players to embrace video to sharpen his swing. He had an elaborate video system as his Poway home long before they started to populate major-league clubhouses.

I was lucky enough to cover Gwynn from 1986 to 1994. He once invited me to his house to check out his video system. When I pulled up, he was playing Wiffle ball in the front yard with his young son, Tony Jr., who went on to his own major-league career. This was AFTER a Padres afternoon game.

Gwynn started showing me a few specially produced videos of his swings from a recent homestand. Soon, he was completely consumed by the video, lying on his belly, inches from the screen, dissecting every frame.

“Dang, look at that,” Gwynn said with a grimace. “That swing sucks.”

It was a sequence of him bouncing a single over second base and into center field.

In 1997, The Sporting News had the great idea to get Tony Gwynn and Stan Musial together to talk hitting.

Gwynn summed up his philosophy this way: “So I think the ability to hit — some guys have it and some guys don’t — but I think how dedicated you are to trying to get the most out of yourself, I think kind of determines how good you are and for how long. I was born with the ability to hit, but my work ethic has taken it to the next level.”

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