It was the spring of 1986, my junior year at Hillcrest, when two BBI coaches came to my house asking me and my parents if I’d play for their team that summer. I didn’t know the coaches, I knew nobody on the team, but when one of them (named Timmons, maybe?) said, “We’d like for you to play shortstop for us, and keep hitting like Tony Gwynn,” well, short of invoking the words “Yount” or “Molitor,” there wasn’t a cooler thing they could have said.
As a 17-year-old, watching Tony Gwynn hit baseballs was watching an artist make art. I’d never seen a baseball player with that kind of ability to slow the game down, to rifle the ball all over the field with what seemed like Joe Montana precision. What I didn’t realize then was that, for at least 28 more years after that, I wouldn’t see another one like him.
Ted Williams — a San Diego native — once said the hardest thing to do in sports was to hit a baseball, but it wasn’t for him and it wasn’t for Gwynn, and there was something about Gwynn’s build, once he no longer looked like the kid who was drafted in 1981 by the Padres one day and by the Clippers the next, that made us all think we just maybe had a shot, as delusional as that might have been. He looked like the guy who does your taxes, or delivers your mail, not like the dangerous offensive machine that he was. He didn’t make the game easier for the rest of us, but in a way he made it possible.
I hate that he’s gone.
Gwynn reached the big leagues in July 1982, and put in 19 full seasons after that. In those 19 years, he never hit below .309. In those 19 years, he never struck out more times than he walked. In fact, the most he ever went down on strikes in one season was 40 times, and that came in 1988, when he won one of his eight batting titles.
The pitcher he faced more than any other in his career was Greg Maddux, and in their 107 matchups, Gwynn’s .415/.476/.521 slash line is overshadowed by the crazy fact that he struck out zero times, something he also managed to accomplish in 36 plate appearances against Pedro Martinez. And in the 20 times he stepped in against Greg’s brother, Mike.
And then there’s that other increasingly rare statistic that marks Gwynn’s career. Here’s his entire transaction line:
June 8, 1981: Drafted by the San Diego Padres in the third round of the amateur draft.
Love that. Seems as rare these days as a perfect game.
Rangers bullpen coach Andy Hawkins was Gwynn’s teammate with AA Amarillo (1981), AAA Hawaii (1982), AAA Las Vegas (1983), and San Diego (1982-1988). They made their big league debuts two days apart, and roomed together with the Padres that summer.
I’m sure Hawk would understand that if I had an hour to talk ball with him, I’d probably squeeze in a question or two about his cursed no-hitter and about Robbie Ross before spending the rest of the time asking him what Tony Gwynn was like in AA, as a rookie, as a veteran, as a teammate. And then I’d ask him when he had another hour.
Michael Young evidently texted Fox Sports columnist Ken Rosenthal on Monday morning, saying: “Ted Williams gets to talk hitting again.”
In their own language.
I know that watching Tony Gwynn play baseball made me love the game more than I would have otherwise. As great as he was, the simplicity of his game — which lacked the brute power of Darryl Strawberry or Jose Canseco, the flair of Rickey Henderson or Kirby Puckett, the bankability of Don Mattingly or Cal Ripken Jr. — kept the dream alive for a left-handed-hitting teenager without power, foolish as the dream might have been. Maybe your team is on its fourth second baseman and fifth first baseman and pitcher number 24, but you keep battling, because this is sports and that’s what you do.
There’s benefit in chasing the goal, even when it’s realistically out of reach — or at least should be. Sometimes all you can do is put the bat on the ball, go with the pitch, put the ball in play, hit it somewhere hard, make the other guys beat you. Sometimes that’s enough.