I'll go back to normal articles tomorrow.
Tony Gwynn's incredible numbers.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
What Rogers Hornsby and Honus Wagner were to their generation, that's what the late, great Tony Gwynn was to his generation.
He didn't play baseball in an age when men routinely hit .424 or .404. He played in an era when it was big news if anyone even got within 50 points of that. Except for the fact he did that every darned year, no matter what.
Then again, he also didn't play baseball in an age when we were obsessed with walks, or on-base-percentage, or wRC+. So maybe, if someone like Tony Gwynn arrived in the big leagues tomorrow, we wouldn't value him quite the way we appreciated him in his own time.
But all I know is this: I've never seen anyone, in my years covering baseball, who mastered the art of bat meeting ball as brilliantly, or as artfully, as Tony Gwynn.
On the day he retired 13 years ago, I took a look at his incredible hitting genius, measured through the columns on the stat sheet he owned like no one else -- the batting average column, the hits column and the strikeouts (or lack thereof) column.
I've updated those numbers now, in the wake of the awful news of Tony Gwynn's death. But his feats are as amazing today as they were back then. And I have a feeling that won't change -- for about the next 12 centuries:
• Gwynn hit .338 over a 20-year career. No one else whose career started after World War II has even gotten closer than 10 points of him -- at least no one with 5,000 plate appearances or more.
• In the 14 seasons from 1984 through 1997, Gwynn finished in the top five in the batting race 13 times. And in the only season he didn't -- in 1990 -- he missed by one hit.
• He had three different seasons in which he hit .370 or higher. In the 73 years since Ted Williams last hit .400, all the other hitters who passed through the big leagues -- a group that includes Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Wade Boggs, yadda, yadda, yadda -- combined to do it only eight times.
[+] EnlargeTony Gwynn
AP Photo/John Swart
In addition to this double in 1993, Tony Gwynn had 3,140 other hits in his 20-year career.
• No hitter born after 1900 reached 3,000 hits in fewer games (2,284) or at-bats (8,874) than Gwynn. In the history of baseball, only Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie got there faster -- and when they played, the gloves were made of the same material as those trains they rode on.
• No 3,000-hit man who was born after 1900 had a higher lifetime batting average than Gwynn (.338). In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau's Steve Hirdt, no hitter born since 1918 (i.e., since Ted Williams) has even gotten 2,000 hits and had an average this high.
• No hitter who has played his entire career since the invention of the designated hitter has accumulated as many hits as Gwynn (3,141) without spending a large portion of his career in the American League. But Gwynn got every one of his hits in the National League. And he was proud of that.
• Gwynn had six straight seasons (and eight altogether) in which he struck out fewer than 20 times. Did you know there were 97 hitters in the big leagues who whiffed at least 20 times just last month?
• Finally, what does it mean to have piled up a .338 batting average over a 20-year career, over 9,288 at-bats? It means Tony Gwynn would have had to go 0-for-his-next-1,183 to get his average to fall under .300 (and even then, it would have "plummeted" to a mere .29997). We kid you not.
OK, got all that digested. Here comes more.
• Gwynn got hits off Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton and Phil Niekro -- four men who won a combined 1,282 games.
• He hit .400 or better against eight different Cy Young winners -- Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Bret Saberhagen, Vida Blue, John Denny, Dennis Eckersley, Mark Davis and Doug Drabek -- and batted at least .300 against seven more.
• He racked up 39 hits off Maddux (39-for-94, .415), 32 against Smoltz (32-for-72, .444) and 30 against Tom Glavine (30-for-99, .303).
• And none of these pitchers ever struck him out: Pedro Martinez (35 AB), Hideo Nomo (25 AB), Mike Hampton (33 AB) or, incredibly, Maddux (in 94 AB).
"When he strikes out swinging," his old hitting coach, Merv Rettenmund, once told me, "the pitcher's shocked. He's shocked. Everybody in the stadium is shocked. He's the best hitter I've seen in 35 years."
For two decades, Tony Gwynn was also the best friend those of us in the media-genius prediction business ever had. Why? Because, thanks to him, you never had to dread that annual spring assignment of picking the batting champ. Heck, we knew, he knew and everyone else knew who was going to win that NL batting title before anyone even threw a pitch.
So maybe we never saw Hornsby or Wagner or Tris Speaker hit a baseball. But we were lucky enough to see Tony Gwynn fire baseballs all over the field, into open spaces from coast to coast, for 20 years. We'll be proud to tell our grandchildren we did.
Tony Gwynn: The man could hit.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Others who knew Tony Gwynn will tell you better stories. Every writer loved Gwynn, who was always accessible, personable and loved talking baseball. I met him once, when he had just signed on to work with ESPN, at some sort of preseason baseball gathering at a hotel at the Hartford airport. He was as nice as could be to a nobody editor and we spent a few minutes talking about his new job or the Padres or whatever.
What I remember is that he was very apologetic about having to leave and I remember him shuffling off to his room. His suit was way too big and he walked pigeon-toed, and if you didn't know who it was you certainly wouldn't have guessed he was one of the best hitters the game has ever seen.
My other Gwynn memory -- aside from all the hits, of course, and the memorable first pitch with an aging Ted Williams at the 1999 All-Star Game in Boston -- is covering spring training one season and being in the Padres' clubhouse when they were conducting their NCAA tournament pool. Gwynn was at his locker and somebody asked if he wanted in. Gwynn dug out the most overstuffed George Costanza wallet you'll ever see -- full of $100 bills. At least I think they were all hundreds. He pulled one out for the pool.
This is heartbreaking. He's too young to be gone. He should be teaching young kids at San Diego State how to go to the opposite field, imparting some of that knowledge that made him an eight-time batting champ.
Gwynn wasn't the best hitter of all time -- he didn't have the power or walks to rank up with the best of the best. He was, however, one of the best hitters ever for average. Seven times he hit above .350, the first time at age 24 in that magical season of 1984 when the Padres reached the World Series, the seventh time at age 37 when he hit .372 in 1997. Gwynn's skill -- put the ball in play -- is largely a lost art. His career high in strikeouts in a season was 40; players do that now in a month.
Since 1950, no batter has matched Gwynn's .338 career average -- not even his idol Williams, who hit .344 for his career overall but just .335 from 1950 on.
Best since 1950:
Wade Boggs: .328
Rod Carew: .328
Miguel Cabrera: .321
Stan Musial: .321
And Gwynn didn't get to play in Fenway and slap doubles off the Green Monster. (Gwynn hit .343 at home in his career, .334 on the road; Boggs, by comparison, hit .369 at Fenway in his career and .302 on the road. Maybe if Gwynn had played for Boston he would have hit .400.)
Another way to look at Gwynn's career average is he hit .338 during a time when the league average was .262 (via Baseball-Reference.com). Williams hit .344 in his career but the league average was .277. Sure, there's Ty Cobb -- .366 career versus a .273 league mark -- but if you need one base hit, one single, one dying quail to win a game, it's a short list of guys you want up there and Gwynn is on it. In situations classified as "late and close," Gwynn hit a mere .353.
Using slightly different numbers for league average, Lee Sinins calculates Gwynn has 73 points higher than his league average, trailing only Cobb (plus-94), Rogers Hornsby (plus-75) and Williams (plus-75).
How good was Gwynn? He hit .415 against Greg Maddux, .444 against John Smoltz, .469 against Doug Drabek. Those aren't small sample sizes as he faced all three at least 50 times. In fact, he faced Maddux more often than any other pitcher: 107 times. Never hit a home run off him, but drew 11 walks, hit eight doubles.
And get this: Maddux never struck him out.
A superhero in the batter's box.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
As you walked through the doors of the San Diego Padres' clubhouse at Jack Murphy Stadium, into a rectangular room, Tony Gwynn's locker was in the far right corner, right next to the manager's office. Behind that, there was a small space, like a personal library, that served as Tony's science lab of hitting.
All were welcome, including reporters -- like me, when I was assigned to cover the Padres for the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1993 and 1994. Tony was one of the greatest hitters of all time, in the midst of a career in which he won eight batting titles and finished with a .338 lifetime average. But he also understood that if he made the game accessible to reporters through him, then that meant fans were included, too.
These days, every team in the majors has a mountain of video equipment and video operators. But Tony may well have been the first player to consistently use this technology in his constant search for hits. In fact, the video equipment that was in that little room belonged to Tony; he had bought it with his own money.
[+] EnlargeTony Gwynn
AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi
Shortly after his election to the Hall of Fame in January 2007, Tony Gwynn acknowledged his fans.
So if you asked him a question about an at-bat, or something that he was doing at the plate, Tony would pull you into a side room and run back the video and narrate what was on the screen for you. Once, he mashed a pivotal hit against the Dodgers, and afterward, he explained to me exactly what he had said to a teammate in the on-deck circle --- that Omar Daal would try to beat him with his little (expletive) slider and then he would turn on it and drive it into the gap. He spoke anecdotally, with exceptional recall of context and words, and painted pictures. When he laughed, his shoulders shook, and he laughed a lot when talking about the daily challenges of playing a game filled with failure.
No wonder Ted Williams loved talking with him and Tony loved talking with Ted; they spoke the same language, had the same precise understanding of what they wanted to do with each pitch of each at-bat.
Gwynn had chronic knee troubles in the early '90s; but in 1994, he was relatively healthy, and he was hitting better than he had in any season of his career. In late July, the Padres took a trip through Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston; during those 10 games, he had 19 hits in 40 at-bats, with one strikeout, pushing his batting average from .386 to .394.
He had a bat that he used only against pitchers who relied on soft stuff -- a special bat because it had so few grains. "Nine Grains of Pain," he called it, and he told me that if he got to the final weeks of the season and he had a shot to reach .400, he intended to use that bat in every game. In the world of hitters, this was like Clark Kent telling you he was about to jump into a phone booth. He had the smallest bat in the league, maybe the smallest hands, the softest handshake -- as if he were protecting the tools of his trade -- but the man was a superhero in the batter's box.
The players went on strike in August of '94 and Tony didn't get the chance to do the same thing his friend Ted had done. Whenever an athlete nears an achievement, part of the conversation is whether he or she will melt under pressure, whether the scrutiny will reduce them. Tony would've loved the pressure of a chase at .400. He would've held court before the game and after, talking baseball, and in between he would've gotten one or two or three hits. I will always be convinced that he would've hit .400 that season. I'm sure of it. He loved the stage.
He played in one more World Series after that, in 1998, and naturally, he had eight hits in 16 at-bats. Perhaps he could've steered his career to a bigger market and had more postseason opportunity, but Tony and his wife Alicia had long since decided that he would stay in San Diego. He had been born in Southern California, set the all-time assist record on San Diego State's basketball team, and time and again he had signed long-term, team-friendly deals to stay with the Padres. He told me about angry phone calls with union leaders who wanted him to push the market; but as genial as Tony could be, he was stubborn and independent and nobody was going to tell him what to do. He wanted to play in San Diego and he never wore a uniform other than that of the Padres.
[+] EnlargeTony Gwynn
AP Photo/Kent Horner
Tony Gwynn played 20 years in the majors and finished his career with a .338 batting average.
After 1992, the Padres ownership decided to dump almost all of its best players, believing they couldn't support their salaries. And so one after another, Tony Fernandez and Darrin Jackson and Gary Sheffield and Bruce Hurst and Greg Harris and Fred McGriff were swapped in what became known in San Diego as the fire sale. Only Gwynn and Andy Benes were left among the team's established players, and the team went 61-101. The morning after the McGriff trade, my responsibility was to find Gwynn and ask him about the franchise being stripped down. I knew he was disgusted, but didn't know whether he would want to talk.
"Buster, are you looking for me?" Gwynn said, after I stepped into the clubhouse, and then he led me to his science lab of hitting and spoke for 30 minutes -- honestly, plainly, in his distinct high-pitched voice.
Tony got mad at me once that I recall. His father passed away during the offseason, and the following spring, I wrote a long story about it. So many of the people that I spoke to about his dad referred to him as Charlie, in conversation, and this is how I referred to him in the article. It turned out that Charles Gwynn did not like the nickname, and because he didn't, Tony didn't. It was a mistake that hurt, because Charles Gwynn was just 57 when he passed away, and was gone far too soon.
I had thought of Charles Gwynn a lot through the years, fearing for his son's health; and after Tony was diagnosed with cancer, his former players and friends provided updates. Stephen Strasburg, who played for Gwynn at San Diego State, was worried about him, and so was John Kruk, who couldn't get a phone call returned recently. Tony was open in talking about baseball, but he hated anybody feeling sorry for him, and his fight with cancer was private.
Last Thursday, John Boggs, Gwynn's close friend and longtime agent, spent some time with him; and Sunday, he had called Gwynn to wish him a happy Father's Day. The phone was put on speaker, and Gwynn's family told him: "Speak up, he can hear you."
Boggs received a call from Alicia Gwynn at 1:15 a.m. Monday, as he recalled tearfully over the phone. He paused and said, "It hits me in waves."
Tony Gwynn was 54, at the end of a gifted life that he shared with so many others.
Tony Gwynn's Lasting Legacy.
Padres remember San Diego's brightest star.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
SEATTLE -- When third baseman Chase Headley took the field for the San Diego Padres for their game against the Seattle Mariners on Monday night he knew he would be thinking of Tony Gwynn.
“I think it would be hard not to, after losing someone who was that caliber of a person and player,” Headley said. “It’s just a reminder of what came before you and what he’s meant to the game. And frankly, to a small extent, to the reason we’re here.”
Gwynn passed away at age 54 on Monday morning, a death that cast a pall over all of baseball but especially the Padres organization, with whom he played his entire Hall of Fame career. In addition to batting .338 over 20 seasons with the Padres, Gwynn led them to their only two World Series.
“He’s Mr. Padre,” Headley said. “He is as beloved by San Diego as any sports figure whoever came through the city -- and he felt the same way. He loved San Diego. He means as much or more to this organization as anybody.”
Padres manager Bud Black called Gwynn an icon, the ballplayer and athlete most associated with the city where Ted Williams grew up. “There’s no doubt about that.”
“When you think of Tony Gwynn, you think of the Padres. And when you think of the Padres, you think of Tony Gwynn,” agreed San Diego batting coach Phil Plantier, who played several seasons with Gwynn. “I was fortunate enough to watch him play for a couple years. I got to hit behind him a couple times. He was just the ultimate professional on and off the field. He did everything the way you hoped everybody would.”
Plantier recalls how Gwynn installed the Padres first videotape system for studying opposing pitchers. “I’m pretty sure he paid for the first system out of his own pocket,” he said. “Tony put it together and he made it available for everybody to use. That was part of his preparation, using the video. A lot of us, we didn’t know what we should be looking for but he would talk about it with us.”
Before Monday’s game, the Mariners showed a highlight video of Gwynn’s career on the scoreboard followed by a moment of silence. They also marked a large No. 19 on the infield dirt, right at Gwynn's famous 5.5 hole.
“I thought the Mariners were thinking what we were thinking,” Black said. “They really did a nice job.”
The Padres, however, lost the game 5-1, with former San Diego pitcher Chris Young holding them scoreless over six innings. Young paid tribute to Gwynn afterward.
“He is the city of San Diego,” Young said. “You talk Padres baseball and Tony Gwynn is everything there. The fact that he spent his entire career there and never left. The records he put up there, what he means to that city, that franchise, and as a resident of San Diego now, I certainly understand and appreciate his greatness. It’s a sad, sad day for everyone there.”
The Padres are still working on plans for the tribute to their greatest and most beloved player when they return from their current road trip.
“There are no words to express what Tony means to this organization and this community,” the Padres organization said in a news release. “More than just Mr. Padre, Tony was Mr. San Diego. He cared deeply about our city and had a profound impact on our community. He forever will be remembered not only for his tremendous on-field accomplishments, but also for his infectious laugh, warm, outgoing personality and huge heart.”
While he was known as Mr. Padre, Gwynn’s career in San Diego wasn’t just about that team. He played baseball and basketball at San Diego State and managed the baseball team there after his playing career ended.
Black and Gwynn played together at San Diego State, when Bud was a senior and Tony was a sophomore (the basketball coach did not allow Gwynn to play baseball his freshman year). Black says he never beat Gwynn to the ballfield -- “He was always there, he loved the baseball field” -- and fondly recalls hearing his distinctive, contagious laugh on the team bus rides, and even from six doors away in the team motels.
He said that despite his success and the many accolades he received during his career, Gwynn never changed from the humble player and kind, always welcoming man he met at Sand Diego State.
“This is a tough one for us,” Black said. “It’s a tough one for the San Diego community. This is a tough one for the Padres organization, a tough one for the San Diego State family -- and for baseball in general.
“He truly loved baseball as much as anyone I’ve ever known.”
Memorable encounter with Mr. Padre.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The reflections on Tony Gwynn's life will inevitably focus on his eight career batting titles, his spirited debates on hitting with Ted Williams and the artistry he summoned to line all those singles between shortstop and third base -- the patch of dirt he lovingly referred to as the "5.5 hole." And that makes perfect sense, because Gwynn's skill with a bat defined him through two decades in the majors and carried him to Cooperstown in 2007 with 97.6 percent of the vote.
But for those of us in the media who were fortunate enough to talk to him, laugh with him and marvel at him for much of his career with the San Diego Padres, there are other, more personal touches that made him distinct, special and, for want of a better word, unforgettable.
You could start with that trademark cackle that rose from the gut and sent a surge of energy and wisdom through a clubhouse. When Barry Bonds made a habit of coming to the All-Star Game each summer and glaring at reporters who approached his locker, it was Gwynn who advised him that life was short and it was in the best interest of everyone for him to be more welcoming and open-minded.
[+] EnlargeTony Gwynn
AP Photo/Kent Horner
Tony Gwynn played 20 years in the majors and finished his career with a .338 batting average.
Even though Gwynn occasionally began interviews with a touch of reticence or good-natured grumpiness, conversations with him inevitably headed in the same direction. "I have nothing to say about that," Gwynn would grouse before filling a notebook and wearing out a microcassette tape recorder with priceless insights over the next half hour.
While lots of players were happy to help us do our jobs, Gwynn ranked among the select few who basically did our jobs for us.
My most memorable encounter with Mr. Padre came in August 1995, when I was assigned to write a profile on him for the Denver Post's Baseball Monday section. Before newspapers put the squeeze on writers and insisted that everything be presented in bite-size chunks, we had the luxury of spending lots of time with subjects and going well beyond the surface insights that are captured in tweets.
I remember arriving midafternoon for a 7 p.m. game and getting a stiff-arm from a security guard, who told me I was too early and would not be allowed to enter the home clubhouse at Jack Murphy Stadium. As I prepared for a lengthy wait, Gwynn suddenly emerged from the clubhouse, beckoned me with his index finger and invited me into his lair in the video room.
I might as well have been privy to a conversation with Stephen Hawking on gravitational singularity theorems. Gwynn had personally invested almost $100,000 in video monitors, an edit board and assorted other gizmos that he gladly shared with his fellow San Diego hitters. For more than an hour, he sat in a chair beneath a backward baseball cap and conducted a tutorial that helped explain how he had earned the dual nickname of "Captain Video."
Gwynn walked me through his thought process on assorted plate appearances and laid out the specifics of his batting practice regimen. He began each batting practice session by laying down a cursory drag bunt, then began spraying line drives all over the field with a routine that he called "carving." In my story for the Post, I described him peppering the Jack Murphy outfield with "cowhide rainbows."
And naturally, we talked about bats. Gwynn swung a Louisville B267, an exceptionally small bat, and he felt blessed beyond description in 1994 when he came across a rare model that he referred to as the "nine grains of pain." After hitting .394 with the rare treasure that season, he broke it during batting practice the following spring. In a fitting memorial, he taped the wood together and gave the bat a place of honor in his trophy room at home.
Gwynn loathed striking out, picked his spots when it came time to turn and burn and mastered his craft in a way that made even the elite pitchers throw up their hands in resignation.
"Just tell the catcher what's coming," Bret Saberhagen said when asked about the best approach to take with Gwynn. "Then throw the ball down the middle of the plate. Let him try to get himself out."
Saberhagen must have been on to something, because Gwynn hit a mere .400 against him, with six hits in 15 career at-bats.
All those batting titles and those 3,141 career hits produced relatively modest earnings for Gwynn, who maxed out with a $6.3 million salary in 2000. He took some grief from the players' association for giving the Padres so many hometown discounts. But he shrugged off the critiques and kept re-signing, because his heart was in San Diego and he understood the synergy that can exist between Joe Fan and the face of the franchise. It meant something to him that the same people who had watched him play point guard for the San Diego State Aztecs were able to celebrate all those Padres' milestones firsthand.
The Gwynn family name lives on in Major League Baseball. Chris Gwynn, a true pro who carried the mantle of "Tony's brother" with grace and good will for so many years, is now the Seattle Mariners' farm director, and Tony Gwynn Jr. is in his eighth big league season as a reserve outfielder with the Philadelphia Phillies. Young Tony doesn't have his father's ability to hit, but he is relentlessly upbeat, nice to everyone who crosses his path and respectful of the game and the people in it. He embodies all the positive attributes that his parents valued, and he can rest assured that he made Tony Sr. proud.
On this, a day when Tony Gwynn Jr. should be in Atlanta for the start of a road trip with the Phillies, funeral plans are now in motion. And when Hall of Famers assemble in Cooperstown for the 2014 induction ceremonies next month, a seat on the podium will be empty. The man known as Mr. Padre has died from cancer at age 54, and the baseball world is poorer for his absence. But we're richer and forever grateful for the memories.
Hall Of Famer Gwynn Dies At 54.
Kurkjian: Gwynn One Of The Great Hitters Of All Time.
Remembering Hall Of Famer Tony Gwynn.