Baseball lost one of the great ones yesterday. And one of the good guys, too. These days in sports, that seems almost as important to me.
Plate discipline may have been made famous by Ted Williams, but Tony Gwynn perfected it. It’s why Reds fans in particular should appreciate the legacy of Mr. Padre, even as he was not one of our own here in Reds Country.
Cincinnati knows hitting. Whether it was Pete Rose watching a pitch all the way into the catcher’s worn mitt or Joey Votto’s unflinching fearlessness at the prospect of two strikes, knowing that every pitch he sees brings him closer to unpacking a pitcher’s secrets—we in the Queen City appreciate great eyes and great hands at the plate. Tony Gwynn had all that and more. He wielded a bat the way a food critic wields a fork. He could do with a 30″ piece of lumber what Aretha Franklin could do with a song—hit a baseball the way Aretha could hit notes—at will. He took the measure of every pitcher who had the audacity to think he could get the ball from mound to mitt without Gwynn having something to say about it.
Gwynn’s first game in the majors in July of 1982, he had the luck of playing against Rose, then playing for the Phillies. Gwynn singled and doubled in his debut and after arriving at second base, Rose is reputed to have said, “Hey kid, what are you trying to do? Catch me all in one night?”
You can read the details about Tony Gwynn and his relentless pursuit of hitting perfection in other places. About a career that saw Greg Maddux fail to strike Tony out so much as one time. About a career that saw Gwynn hit .338, which made him one of only three players to hit for that high of an average playing after 1938, Williams and Gerhig being the other two. For a five year period between 1993 and 1997, Gwynn hit an unbelievable .368. And during that same stretch, he hit .335 with two strikes on him. Let it be known that Tony Gwynn never struck out more than 40 times in a season. Getting Gwynn to walk back to the dugout from home plate was akin to crossing Santa Monica Boulevard blindfolded at rush hour. You can do it, but good luck.
Gwynn did what Johnny Bench did. He played his entire career for one team, eschewing larger contracts in the process. It made him beloved in San Diego. He even flummoxed sabermatricians everywhere, whom know there are no clutch hitters in Baseball.
As large as all of his numbers surely are, his personality was that much larger. His smile was his special gift. So, it comes as no surprise that cancer—being the bastard that is is—came after what was best about Tony Gwynn. Attacking his salivary gland via the sin of smokeless tobacco, the disease even robbed Gwynn of his smile at one point. You wonder if the Players’ Association will do now what they should have done years ago—outlaw the practice of “dipping” in major league dugouts and clubhouses.
It’s the least they could do to honor the memory of one of the greatest hitters—and greatest men—Baseball has ever seen.