Coming up in the early to mid-1990s, there was a simple answer as to who was the best hitter in baseball: Tony Gwynn. Maybe there were better players in Seattle and Pittsburgh, and perhaps there were folks who won more in Atlanta and New York, but when it came to the pure, sophisticated science of wielding a baseball bat and being able to make the ball bend to his will with more control than the pitcher who released it himself, there has been none greater. And it does not simply start and end with the 20-year era that he directly impacted. No, it goes farther than that — Tony Gwynn was the greatest contact hitter. EVER.
Gwynn took the action of hitting and made it into an unmatched artistry, and like all of the greats of a craft, he produced an irreplaceable outcome with stunning consistency and a brilliant touch. Through a hitter’s eye that would be the envy of even a real, live eagle, a library-like memory that retained everything that had been issued to him from a pitcher before, and a machine-like work ethic to review what pitchers and fielders had done in every other situation as well, Gwynn became a master. Putting it simply, he was the most prepared hitter of all-time and topped it off by being an unmatched talent as well.
The numbers are staggering. One look at them tells anything and everything that needs to be known about the wholesale volume of work Gwynn put in over the course of his career. He was an eight-time batting champ and retired with a career average of .338, which is nearly 20 points higher than any player born after 1950. Following a .289 average as a rookie, he never finished under .309 again in his career. Among those eight batting titles, he had streaks of three (1987-89) and four (1994-1997).
During the second such streak, his average season was a .371 mark, at the ages of 34 through 37. By this time, he was as locked in and as natural of a hitter as could be imagined. To see Gwynn hit left little to the imagination. Regardless of pitch, count, speed or placement, he could simply put the ball wherever he needed it to be.
His control and understanding of the strike zone are easily the greatest ever displayed. In the course of making 10,232 plate appearances in his career, the outcome yielded 3,141 hits with only 790 strikeouts, including a six-year run where his season total finished under 20 strikeouts from 1991-96. He never had a season in which he struck out more than he walked. The result was a career with 15 All-Star Game appearances capped by showing up on a whopping 97.6% of Hall of Fame ballots on his first year of eligibility.
Appreciating Gwynn’s game is a study in the intricacies that make baseball unique unto itself. A key example of this is one of the underrated great experiences in the history of the game: seeing him take batting practice. He would go through shifts of simply hitting the ball all over the outfield at will, as if he hit a switch in his mind and decided to put the ball where it should go. Then, despite never being a power hitter, he would wrap a few over the fence as well, just to prove that if he truly wanted to, he could have most likely hit well more than the 135 homers his career yielded with relative ease.
Yet, while it is his incredible bat that made his reputation, to see his legacy as simply an astonishing hitter would be a grave injustice. While he is remembered most as a portly, yet undeniably talented, bat when he broke into baseball with the San Diego Padres in 1982, he was an athletic, dual-purpose threat who made an impact everywhere between home plate to the wall. He became one of the best base-runners of his era as well, turning in four seasons of over 30 stolen bases, including 56 swipes in 1987.
To expand further, he was a much better than billed defensive presence as well. Gifted with a strong and accurate arm, Gwynn used his knowledge of how the ball traveled off the bat to translate it into great defensive prowess in the field, evidenced by the five Gold Glove Awards he won. His knowledge of the game was on display with stunning regularity, and he was not shy about discussing it. He regularly chatted up teammates in the dugout and extended the same courtesy to opponents as well, whether it was during one of his frequent stops at first base or even around the batting cage as during batting practice. He simply loved the game too much to contain it.
There are few players who are definitively the all-time face of a franchise all by themselves. Yet when you think of the San Diego Padres, it is Tony Gwynn that is synonymous with the franchise, if not altogether more renown. He is one of 11 players to ever collect 3,000 hits with one franchise. He crossed over from the time when the face of a franchise was set in stone and into this new era where it is commonplace to have debates on who defines what time — or what team defines a player. But there is no debate for San Diego — Tony Gwynn defines what a Padre is to this day.
It was this factor that made it such a great moment to see him get a chance to take his club to the World Series in 1998. Placed against an undeniably superior New York Yankees team, there was the undeniable urge to root for Gwynn, the good soldier and model of consistent excellence for an oft-pointless summer, to make it to the mountaintop. In the end, the Padres were swept, but Gwynn had his well-deserved payoff moment.
However, despite all of these accolades and achievements, Gwynn completed the cycle as a player by being as relatable of a human as anyone could ask for. If Tony Gwynn was your hero, the old adage of, “Never meet your heroes” could not be further off the mark. He was a kind and generous man despite his star power. I had the fortune of meeting and even talking with him several times after games when the Padres would visit St. Louis, as just another kid on the street looking for a quick autograph from one of the greats in the game. And while lesser players on his club would come out of the stadium and either jump immediately on the team charter or hail a cab without as much as stopping to notice the gaggle of fans gathered to meet them, Gwynn was as much of the exception on the street as he was at the plate.
Tony Gwynn was earthly at a time in life when athletes still felt like gods to me. He would stand outside for 30 minutes signing autographs for the kids and talking with the adults, answering the type of simple questions that often must have seemed trivial to a man of his stature, but he took it all in and gave back. Those moments fulfilled the fans — that brief brush with greatness that lasts much longer than the sensation of receiving his signature or briefly seeing him grace a batter’s box over the course of a game. He truly was a man of the people.
When he was chasing his 3,000 hit in the summer of 1999, it seemed like he would be able to reach the mark in St. Louis. Because of this, he had to make quick arrangements to bring his family in town for his milestone moment. However, he couldn’t find a last-second hotel room for all of his family members. My father, who was a manager at the team hotel across the street from Busch Stadium, pulled some strings and made room for Gwynn’s family.
Despite the fact that he did not reach the mark in town (yet he would in his next stop in Montreal), he took the time as the team checked out of the hotel to look up my father and personally give him a collectible pin that had been put together to mark his pursuit of the record as a token of his thanks for helping him along the way. That is the type of person that Gwynn was and why it was also so good to see the successes that met him — but also why it makes it so difficult to come to terms with such an early departure.
Cancer took Tony Gwynn at a far too early an age this week, at only 54. While the game has lost an ambassador, a family has lost a member and the world has lost a credit to its humanity, a life and a career alike are based on the legacy you leave both with. And to that regard, Tony Gwynn departs with an even greater consistency than he swung the stick with.