Tony Gwynn’s 2 Hitting Secrets: Work and More Work
By Tyler Kepner
June 16, 2014
Tony Gwynn may have embodied the game of baseball better than anyone else who has played. It was not because Gwynn, who died of cancer on Monday at age 54, was among its greatest hitters. It was because of the wonder he found in the game and the joy he took in applying his daily discoveries.
Gwynn liked baseball as a child in Southern California. He and his brothers would cut up socks, tape them together and practice hitting. He was enthralled by Willie Davis, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ All-Star center fielder. But basketball was his first love.
“Like a lot of kids, you kind of think baseball’s boring — that’s the perception,” Gwynn said in 1999 as he closed in on his 3,000th career hit. He added, “Really trying to learn all I could about the game, you began to understand the nuances of the game, and it became really fun.”
Gwynn, a San Diego Padres right fielder who retired in 2001, said proudly that he learned something new at the ballpark every day. It was a simple but powerful lesson, easy to forget in a sport with a punishing schedule: six weeks of training before a six-month, 162-game grind.
Other sports, to be sure, are enthralling. But when a player so accomplished could be so eager in his search for new frontiers, what a waste it was to ever focus on the drudgery.
Some players do, and that bothered Gwynn. In 1994, while on his way to the fifth of his eight National League batting crowns, he spoke passionately about the attitude of the modern player.
“They just feel like stuff is supposed to happen to them,” he said. “They’re not going to have to work for it. And that bugs me because I know how hard I had to work to get where I got. Sometimes they sit there in amazement at why I come out here every day. But I cannot let their way of thinking into my head.”
For Gwynn, the thrill was in the pursuit of perfection in a job built around failure. He tried to leave nothing to chance. Years before laptops and iPads, Gwynn would lug video equipment around the league, meticulously combing through his at-bats, discarding the rare clunkers and studying the gems.
He hit .338 for his career, the best mark — by 10 points — of any hitter who made his debut after World War II and had at least 3,000 turns at bat. He had more games of four or more hits (45) than of two or more strikeouts (34). He faced Greg Maddux more than any other pitcher, 107 times — and batted .415 with no strikeouts. Pedro Martinez never struck him out, either, in 36 confrontations. The two pitchers finished their careers with seven Cy Young Awards between them.
Gwynn was an extraordinary athlete, nimble enough to be drafted into the N.B.A. (he did not sign) and to set the career assists record at San Diego State. He had four seasons of at least 33 stolen bases, with a high of 56. As he gained weight later in his career, he retained the physical tools to be an elite hitter, along with his ever-improving mental acuity.
He could not have foreseen such success at the beginning. Assigned to a farm team in Walla Walla, Wash., in 1981, he stung his hands on a pitch off the end of the bat on his very first practice swing.
“It hurt so bad I just dropped my bat like a little kid,” Gwynn said. “I remember shaking my hand and saying, ‘Man, I’m in trouble.’ ”
He applied himself, of course, and figured it out quickly. But he fretted on his way to San Diego the next summer, after a promotion from an affiliate in Hawaii. The whole flight, Gwynn said, he worried about the prospect of facing Steve Carlton, an imposing left-hander for the Philadelphia Phillies. He landed in San Diego and went straight to a newsstand to check that day’s starting pitcher. It was not Carlton.
Gwynn hit a sacrifice fly off Mike Krukow his first time up. His first hit came later that game, a double off Sid Monge. The Phillies’ first baseman, who trailed the play, shook Gwynn’s hand at second.
“Congratulations,” said the player, Pete Rose, who went on to become baseball’s career hits leader. “Don’t catch me after one night.”
Gwynn — whose 3,141 hits make him No. 19 on the list, to match his uniform number — told me that anecdote from the bench in Philadelphia one day in the early 1990s. All the stories here came from our conversations in dugouts.
Gwynn liked to do interviews there so he could sit at eye level with the reporter and express himself freely, away from the bustling clubhouse. Maybe, too, he could notice something useful on the field while he chatted.
I was a teenager when I first interviewed Gwynn, working for a small magazine I published from home. This was not Sports Illustrated or ESPN. He had no special reason to be nice. But every time the Padres came to town, Gwynn would greet me warmly.
He noticed things others would not. One time we spoke, I was wearing a Vanderbilt golf shirt. Gwynn noticed the logo and asked if I went there. When I said yes, he lit up. The Padres beat writer Buster Olney, of The San Diego Union-Tribune, also went there, Gwynn said excitedly. “You’ve got to meet him!” he said.
Pause for a moment to consider how rare this is. Few players would bother to notice a detail on a reporter’s shirt. Few would know which college the team’s beat writer had attended. Fewer still would then offer, with genuine enthusiasm, to play matchmaker.
But that was Gwynn. When our interview ended, he went back to the clubhouse, found Olney and brought him to the dugout to meet me. A few years later Olney was writing for The New York Times, and he recommended me for a job. Gwynn had set me on my career path.
Twenty years later, I remember almost everything about those interviews with Gwynn: his piercing laugh, his high-pitched voice, the way the Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas would stroll by and announce his name, somewhat royally: “T. Gwynn!” I remember the cap with the white S and the orange D, and the thick wooden floorboards of the dugout and the late-afternoon shadows across the AstroTurf.
I also remember that the dugout always smelled like tobacco. I loved that because to me it smelled like the big leagues. But on Monday Tony Gwynn died of cancer of the mouth and salivary glands, which he believed was caused by years of dipping tobacco. And it absolutely breaks your heart.