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Nobody Did It Better

Tony Gwynn, 1960-2014.

Jun 30, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 40 • By JEREMY ROZANSKY
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The Hall of Famer Greg Maddux once explained his pitching success by pointing to a road a quarter-mile off. At that distance, he observed, you couldn’t tell whether a car was traveling 55, 65, or 75 miles per hour. So it was in pitching. Unless the batter is tipped off by a hitch in the delivery or an anomalous spin, he’s left guessing at whether the ball will come at 80, 85, or 90 miles per hour. “You just can’t do it,” Maddux explained, “except for that [expletive] Tony Gwynn.”

Tony Gwynn

Tony Gwynn, RIP.

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Indeed, Tony Gwynn got more hits off Maddux over the course of his career than off any other pitcher, compiling a .415 average and never striking out. Maddux can be forgiven the career blemish, for Gwynn was
the greatest hitter of his era. His career average (.338) was the highest of any player to enter the league after World War II by 10 points. The San Diego Padres’s number 19 is 19th on the all-time hits list, with 3,141, and no hitter born after 1900 got to 3,000 hits in fewer at bats. Gwynn won eight batting titles, ranking behind only the dead-ball phenoms Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner. Not since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941 has a hitter come so close to a .400 average as Gwynn did when he finished at .394 during the strike-shortened 1994 season.

Gwynn died last week of salivary-gland cancer at the age of 54. Baseball fans will remember Gwynn as Maddux does: as the exception. Gwynn was a prewar contact hitter in an era of Bash Brothers and home-run chases. With his career covering almost the entire “Steroid Era,” Gwynn was one of the first players to speak out against the rampant use of steroids and amphetamines. 

As baseball writers have universally attested, Gwynn was, as a superstar, neither a cantankerous recluse nor an overmanaged corporate icon. His voice may have been more distinctive than his batting stance: high, nasal, and ready to explode with laughter. It was a wonder such an exuberant man could be so patient at the plate. Most of all though, Gwynn is an exception because he never left the San Diego Padres. Though free agency obliterated expectations of loyalty, leading countless players to take their talents elsewhere, Gwynn, a southern California native who attended San Diego State University, routinely took a hometown discount to stay with his oft-hapless Padres. He became Mr. Padre. America’s Finest City’s finest.

Hitting was Gwynn’s obsession and vocation. There are two great contradictory myths we like to tell ourselves about sports. One is that the great ones are simply naturals. Beyond the way it corrodes meritocracy, such a view is flat wrong: Most of the greats are obsessive workers. But its opposite is wrong too: Greatness does not come to every hard worker. Gwynn’s greatness was in making the most of his natural gifts. A star point guard at San Diego State, he had exceptional hand-eye coordination and quick wrists. But he also spent the last half of his career with what he called “a body by Betty Crocker.” Gwynn had small hands, compelling him to use a smaller, swifter bat, good for singles but not for home runs. Gwynn nicknamed his slender bat “Seven Grains of Pain,” but he couldn’t use it against power pitchers, otherwise it’d snap. When Ted Williams first saw “Seven Grains,” he snarled that he could pick his teeth with it. 

What Gwynn did best in the team pursuit of runs and wins was spraying line-drive doubles and duck-snort singles across the diamond, advancing runners, and hoping he would be advanced. When George Will needed a subject for the chapter “The Batter” in Men at Work, he chose Gwynn. Will recounts a story of Gwynn pleased by an out and distressed by a home run. He explained to Will that even though he’d made an out, he kept his shoulders square just long enough and swung with his hands leading the barrel of the bat by the right number of inches. On the home run, he complained, he had come forward with the barrel of the bat and had swung a millisecond too soon. Repeating the same swinging action several times a game over a 162-game season means a ballplayer must rely on muscle memory. Given baseball’s relentless and gradual averaging out, a well-timed swing led by the hands would produce more runs than an early swing with the hands behind the barrel. Gwynn was never seduced by swinging for the fences. He set his sights on more solid ground: generally swinging for the 5.5 hole between the shortstop (6 on a scorecard)
and the third baseman (5).

His success was the result of discipline and preparation. He would arrive at the ballpark and take batting practice at least five hours before the game. He’d start with a drag bunt, then he’d tap line drives across the field, starting behind third and moving a tick toward first with each pitch. His meticulousness took other forms, like requesting that the Padres’ batting cages be lit at 300 candle feet (the exact lighting at Jack Murphy Stadium) rather than the original 285 candle feet.

Gwynn was a pioneer in the use of video and let any Padre use his equipment. Originally Gwynn had his wife record games to analyze his own tendencies, but later he examined the tendencies of opposing pitchers. He’d often scribble some lines on wax paper he put over the monitor to make sure that he wasn’t diving for the ball too much, or that the tip of his bat followed the right path. And he’d have to start his swing 10 frames of the cassette after the pitcher let go of the ball—9 he was pulling the ball, 11 he was behind. Video allowed him to quickly correct any lapses in his swing, any irregularities. Gwynn was so consistent that, in any season, he never struck out more than 40 times—a bad month for some sluggers. Gwynn was so prepared that he managed to hit .302 with two strikes, leading his closest peer by 40 points. 

This is not to say that Gwynn was some sort of analytical supercomputer. He claimed he came to the plate with a mostly clear mind. He’d have a sense of what the defensive alignment said about how his opponents were going to pitch to him or what the pitcher liked to do on a given count. But once the ball was thrown, he simply reacted to it. He estimated he picked up the rotation of the pitch only a fifth of the time. He wouldn’t even try to look for hitches in a pitcher’s windup. Gwynn’s preparation affected his disposition, but it did not dictate. Hitting was not all analysis, it was feel too. 

Late in his career, a reporter compared his statistics favorably to some of the greats. “I don’t care what the numbers say,” Gwynn retorted. “Am I better than Hank Aaron? Stan Musial? Frank Robinson? Not a chance. The only thing I want people to say about me is that I played the game the way it should be played. What I’ve always wanted to do is be a complete player. This is as close as I’ve ever come to it.” He displayed a boyish wonderment at the chance to play at Yankee Stadium for the first time in the 1998 World Series. Without the pretense that he deserved his fame and success, he could not help but be generous with interviews and autographs.

Most of all, Gwynn will be remembered as San Diego’s own. His first advice to his son when Tony Gwynn Jr. became a major leaguer was to take care of his family. For the senior Gwynn, that meant staying in San Diego. He was from Southern California, he went to college there, he was a hero there, he was Mr. Padre. So he stayed. 

San Diego is the largest city without a championship in one of the four major sports leagues. It’d be as pitied as Cleveland if not for the weather. The Padres are possibly the worst franchise in baseball history. They’ve been to the World Series only twice, and Tony Gwynn was there both times. He endured a fire sale of virtually every valuable Padre other than himself. He played a team game and he played it well, but the rest of his team was never quite good enough, and was very frequently terrible. 

 

But we remember more about sports than the outcomes, otherwise we wouldn’t go to the games. We go to see how, through a combination of intense, unseen work at self-mastery and ineffable, God-given brilliance, a great hitter can hold back on a dropping curve ball and then hold back an extra split-second, all before dipping a seven-grain-wide bat, hands well in front of the bat’s barrel, toward the falling curve. With the echo of contact, everyone in Jack Murphy Stadium knew where the ball was going: It’d loop just past the infield, between short and third, and no one could catch it. It happened thousands of times.

Jeremy Rozansky is assistant editor at National Affairs. He was born in San Diego.

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