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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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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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