Tony Gwynn has died at the age of 54
By: Chris Jenkins (UT San Diego)
Tony Gwynn has died at the age of 54. In the sense of both baseball and San Diego, though, his legacy is that of an immortal.
It’s a word that only the game of baseball assigns to its certifiable legends, the ex-players to whom the designation “Hall of Famer” is still an understatement. Anthony Keith Gwynn, HOF ’07, beloved in San Diego and known from coast to coast as “Mr. Padre,” was decidedly one of them when he passed away after years-long combat with cancer.
Having battled an especially vicious form of the disease with the same tenacity that he fouled off unhittable pitches -- usually before stroking opposite-field singles through the 5.5 hole between short and third -- Gwynn retired in 2001 with eight National League batting titles. Also with baseball’s near-unanimous belief that “T” was the greatest pure hitter of the last half of the 20th Century.
Without compare, Gwynn was also the best ballplayer to ever play for the Padres’ major-league franchise. Before that, he was a two-sport athlete who came to San Diego State as an 18-year-old basketball player and never left town, returning to his alma mater upon retirement from the big leagues to coach the Aztecs baseball team at Tony Gwynn Stadium.
As much for his 3,141 career hits and final batting average of .338 – the highest of any player who’s retired since 1939 – Gwynn further endeared himself to San Diegans with his jovial nature, the inexplicable twang in his high-pitched voice and those quick bursts of child-like laughter.
“Think about the number of people Tony’s touched, the generations he touched in San Diego for 30 years,” said Gwynn’s longtime Padres teammate, closer Trevor Hoffman. “Say you were an eighth-grader in 1980. You’re watching him on the hardcourt at San Diego State.
“Now he’s drafted by your hometown team. The eight-year old is now a 12-year-old, and that’s just the start of a 20-year career. Or you’re the 50-year-old who followed him throughout his career in the same city.”
The east entry of Petco Park -- built on the success of the 1998 team that Gwynn helped put into a second World Series -- is on Tony Gwynn Drive. Out in the grassy Park at the Park is a huge statue, the only one honoring a Padres player, and it’s of Gwynn taking his classic swing. Going "oppo."
“There’s simply no bigger figure in baseball that San Dego’s ever had,” said Hoffman, whose “51” is one of the few retired numbers with Gwynn’s atop the center-field backdrop. “I’ll give Ted (Williams) his nod for what he did in the game, but for what Tony did here in San Diego, there’s a reason they call him Mr. Padre on that statue at Petco Park.”
Hoffman could’ve been talking about another of his former teammates, Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who idolized Gwynn when raised in both Chula Vista and Tijuana. All the way through Eastlake High, where he became MLB’s first overall draft choice of (year), Gonzalez wore No. 19 in honor of Gwynn.
“He was The Guy,” said Gonzalez, who also played for the Padres. “When I was growing up, he was the player my dad talked about and pointed to as the example of a hitter, the way he approached every at bat and swung the bat.
“He was our role model. As a professional. As a man.”
The way Mr. Padre refined both the art and science of hitting, but also converted himself from what he called an “inadequate” fielder to a five-time Gold Glove winner, he’d have been considered the greatest player ever for any number of major league ballclubs. In the game’s 150-year history, only Ty Cobb won more league batting championships (11) than Gwynn, who had the National League’s top average in 1984, three straight seasons (’87-89) and four more in a row (’94-97).
With the first four, Gwynn was a marvel. With the last four, he was the master.
"Indefensible" was a word commonly applied to him by other fielders. After a few years, some pitchers admitted that Gwynn was so adept at handling even their toughest deliveries, they resigned themselves to just throwing the ball down the middle with the hope that he'd hit it somewhere close to somebody wearing a glove.
Not since San Diego product Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941 has a baseball player finished a season over the .400 mark. The closest anyone came was Gwynn, who was batting .394 when the Major League Baseball Players Association went out on strike on Aug. 11, 1994, eventually wiping out the World Series and raising forever the question of whether Gwynn might’ve raised his average just six points in the final 45 games.
“Tony would’ve hit .400,” said Eric Davis, a former Cincinnati Reds great who was competing with Gwynn for batting titles when they were in Rookie Ball. “I know that. I know that.”
Because he stayed with the Padres for the entirety of his two decades as a major leaguer, Gwynn likely cost himself in terms of salary, national exposure and postseason experience, each of which surely would have been much greater if he’d tested the free-agent market and signed with the more successful, big-money clubs.
As it was Gwynn, was a major part of both Padres teams that won pennants, albeit 14 years apart.
Ironically, the most widely seen and electrifying hit of his career did not even count among Gwynn’s 3,141, since postseason statistics aren’t included in a players’ official totals. Typically, Gwynn had 33 hits and a .308 average to show for 27 postseason games, including a laser-beam of a home run off Yankee Stadium’s right-field façade that gave the Padres a 3-2 lead in Game 1 of the 1998 World Series.
“Everything about the circumstances makes that my No. 1 hit by far,” Gwynn once said. “The World Series, Yankee Stadium, the Yankees, David Wells pitching and it gave us the (4-2) lead.”
The lead vanished – also due to “circumstances,” a questionable ball-four call and an ensuing Yankees grand slam – but Gwynn had proven on the grandest stage that he was more than just a ping hitter.
“You can preach all you want about balance, but most guys go up there and want to hit the ball nine miles,” said Joe Torre, a former National League batting champion/MVP and manager of the Yankees in their dynastic run through the late 1990’s. “Tony never got fooled, never seemed to lose his balance. You never wanted to have him up when you wanted a strikeout, because you weren’t going to get that, and you knew he was going to get the bulk of his hits to left. But he sure turned on us, didn’t he?”
Now an MLB executive, Torre represented baseball only months ago at the memorial service for Jerry Coleman at Petco Park. That he learned so soon after of the declining health of San Diego’s other most beloved baseman man was like a 1-2 punch to the spirit.
“Tony Gwynn never, never stopped trying to get better at his craft,” said Torre. “He was the model of what you wanted a player to be.”
The ultimate goal of every player is Cooperstown, and for even some of the most accomplished hitters in history, getting there is a rigorous process. Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. were the lone inductees of 2007, both on the first ballot, both almost unanimously.
"There are three kinds of Hall of Famers -- borderline, ordinary and major Hall of Famers,” said pitching legend Bob Feller, HOF ’62. “These guys both belong in the major category."
The overwhelming votes for both were a resounding statement by baseball writers and Hall of Fame members, not only about the duo’s talent and consistency, but also the respect each commanded for numbers beyond reproach. Likewise, that message resonated with fans who’d grown wearily suspicious about power-hitting gone nuclear.
Indeed, the hills of upstate New York looked like baseball’s version of Woodstock for the enshrinement of Gwynn and Ripken. No fewer than 53 living Hall-of-Famers, a record, took part in a Sunday ceremony that was witnessed in person by 75,000, approximately 25,000 more than had gather for the previous record event in 1999.
Clearly, the broad appeal was attributable to the two inductees. Legendary ballplayers, yes, but men like them.
“Tony came to work every day, and I mean, he worked at it,” said San Francisco Giants coach Tim Flannery, who was a teammate for the first eight of Gwynn’s years with the Padres “He played every day. He played if he was sick. He played if he was hurt.
“And with what we know now, he didn’t ever take anything. That’s pretty impressive over a 162-game schedule and as many years as he did it.”
Flannery, who was a Padres coach over the last five years of Gwynn’s career, was absolutely flabbergasted by the insight and foresight that Gwynn took to the batter’s box. He recalled a road game at Cincinnati that was hit by a deluge of rain, a game the Reds were winning 2-0 when Gwynn stepped up with two runners on base.
For all the good it would do, a left-hander was summoned from the Cincy bullpen, whereupon the rain resumed in buckets before he could deliver a pitch to the plate. The game was suspended at that point, to be resumed at that exact point the next day.
“Because of all the rain delays, it’s now about 11:30 at night,” said Flannery. “Tony and I are walking back up the tunnel at Riverfront. He said, “Hey, Flan, I want you to be ready tomorrow, because this guy’s gonna throw me a first-pitch slider, I’m gonna hit it into the left-center gap, it’s gonna score two and we’re gonna be tied.’
“Sure enough, next day, first-pitch-slider, boom, left-center field, both runners socre, tie game. Tony looks at me and smiles. I’ll guarantee you this: Before he went to bed that night, that lefty didn’t know he was gonna throw that. But Tony knew.
“Amazing. Just an amazing, amazing player.”
If Gwynn made hitting a baseball seem like child’s play, it’s partially due to the fact that when he was a child, he was hitting figs thrown by brothers Charles and Chris in the backyard of their Long Beach home. Tony, the middle son of Charles and Vandella Gwynn, said Charles Jr. could “make a fig dance.”
For a bat, the brothers would use a broom handle. (That may also explain why Gwynn, upon reaching the minor leagues, resorted to using a 32-inch, 31-ounce bat that often was referred to as a toothpick.) His father coached football and baseball, but basketball became Tony’s favorite sport through his teens, good enough that San Diego State offered him a hoops scholarship.
Unfathomably, Gwynn actually gave up baseball for his first two years at San Diego State. Despite hands so small that he couldn’t grip a basketball in one palm, Gwynn was a slick enough ballhandler to make the All-Western Athletic Conference Team as a point guard, setting the Aztecs record for assists even earning some love from NBA scouts.
Once he did come out for baseball, though, Gwynn’s future was cast. He batted .301 as a sophomore, .423 as a junior and .416 as a senior.
The only Aztecs athlete ever named all-conference in two sports, Gwynn was drafted in 1981 by both hometown teams, the Padres and then San Diego Clippers. On the same day.
“One day Dick Williams told all of us, “There’s a guy coming up named Tony Gwynn,” said Flannery, referring to the crusty Padres manager. “You know how guys will take themselves out of the lineup? Dick said, “When I finally put the name “Tony Gwynn” in the lineup, I don’t think he’s ever gonna be taken out of it.” “
Making his Padres debut on July 19, 1982, Gwynn hit a double in his debut and immediately had the kind of moment that grew into baseball lore. Trailing on the play, all-time hit champion Peter Rose of the Philadelphia Phillies tweaked the Padres rookie by saying, “Don’t catch me in one night.”
The sheer volume of Gwynn’s work over the next 20 years – he holds the Padres career record in virtually every non-slugging category, including 2,000 more hits in a San Diego uniform than anybody else and 19 straight seasons with an average of .300 – was not written without issues of various sorts.
It was amid a sophomore “slump” in 1983 that prompted Gwynn to have wife Alicia videotape Padres games off television so he could study his at bats. This was years before teams – including the Padres – began using the highest-tech digital equipment for scouting each other and themselves.
“He revolutionized video in baseball,” said Hoffman. “To see “T” on his high-8’s, looking at his pictures when we’re on planes, taking the early BP. He just knew how to work, knew how to fix himself, how to get right and beat the other guy. He didn’t leave anything unturned.”
When the Pittsburgh Pirates were in San Diego recently, star center fielder Andrew McCutchen pointed to a bank of laptops in the center of the visitors clubhouse at Petco Park. Clicking through the digital replays of that day's opposing pitcher and their own at bats were teammates.
"I didn't get too much of a chance to see Tony Gwynn play," said McCutchen, 27, the reigning Most Valuable Player of the National League. "Just from the batting titles, you know what a great player he was. But he was the guy who started all the video, the guy who taught other players how to find ways to make yourself better, how important it is to work to improve yourself every day."
Gwynn overcame financial setbacks and various contract skirmishes with Padres management, though never to the point of alienation where he’d go elsewhere, and there were occasional brushes with teammates like Jack Clark and Jim Leyritz.
Much was made over his career about the fact that Gwynn didn’t, well, look like the phenomenal athlete that he was. Weight became a constant issue, especially as it pertained to knee problems that required nine surgeries, but his eye-hand coordination never seemed the least bit diminished.
“When you’re that good and you perfect what you do … game to game, Tony always did something to impress you,” said Davis. “He was devastating with runners in scoring position. Impossible.”
Through his sense of dismay over Gwynn’s fading health, Davis laughed quietly. He recalled the view from the other team's outfield, the futility at hand in games against the Padres, the ultimate comedy that was Pitcher v. T. Gwynn.
“You bring in a lefty, think you had him, you throw him two curveballs he’d look at, then you throw him the third one,” said Davis. “Tony puts the ball over (Hall of Fame shortstop) Barry Larkin’s head. Oh, man, that Tony.”
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