Arguably the best hitter of the last 30 years has left us far too soon. Tony Gwynn passed away at 54 from cancer. For 20 seasons, Tony Gwynn put on a clinic for what it meant to be a professional hitter. He always had the ear-to-ear smile that many, including myself, fell in love with from the first time you saw him play. Gwynn hit .289 in 1982, after he was called up from AAA in July. This was the only season in which he would bat below .300 in his 20 year career. A career .338 hitter, Gwynn won the National League Batting Title eight times. He flirted with .400 in 1994, when he finished the strike shortened season with a .394 average. Gwynn collected 200 or more hits five times. It would have been seven if not for the 1994 players strike. He has 165 hits through 110 games in 1994 and finished the shortened 1995 season with 197 hits in 135 games. There could have been more if not for injuries which reduced his playing time during his 30’s.
What Gwynn lacked in power he made up with always being on base. He hit 135 career home runs, topping out at 17 in 1997. He walked 790 times against 434 strike outs in his career. His career 1.82 walks per strike out is unimaginable today. In 1987, Gwynn struck out a career high 82 times; both Upton brothers, BJ and Justin, of the Atlanta Braves have already surpassed this make this season. This “high number of strike outs” for Gwynn was an aberration, he would not strike out more than 59 times in any other season in his career. Despite his “high” strike out total, the 1987 season was not a down year for Gwynn, he still hit .370. during his career, Gwynn won seven Silver Slugger Awards, five Gold Gloves, elected to 15 All Star games, was the recipient of the 1995 Branch Rickey Award (in recognition for his exceptional community service), the 1998 Lou Gehrig Memorial Award (awarded to the player who best exhibits the character of Lou Gehrig both on and off the field), the 1999 Roberto Clemente Award (player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement, and the individual’s contribution to his team), and was elected by the BBWAA to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, with the seventh highest vote total ever (97.61%) in his first year of eligibility.
Michael Young, who holds the record for most hits for the Texas Rangers, reacted to the sudden and sad news of Tony Gwynn’s death simply, “Ted Williams gets to talk hitting again.” This sums up the relationship between Williams and Gwynn perfectly. Listening to both men discuss their approach to and the science of hitting are both legendary and a fascinating listen. Both possessed the skills which went well beyond simply see the ball, hit the ball. They were students of the game who worked hard at their craft. The 1999 All Star Game at Fenway Park was a showcase for Ted Williams, and through the entire memorable evening Tony Gwynn was his trusty sidekick. When the rest of the All Stars crowded around the golf cart Williams rode around Fenway in, the camera seemed to always have both Williams and Gwynn in the frame together. The ceremonial first pitch left these two Hall of Fame hitters and friends in front of the pitcher’s mound together and alone. When Ted Williams asked “where’s he at?” referring to the catcher, Gwynn pointed and showed his friend and mentor the way while flashing his famous boyish smile.
Forever a San Diego man, Tony Gwynn returned to his alma mater San Diego State in 2002 as a volunteer coach and in 2003 as the Head Baseball Coach for the Aztecs. Gwynn remained the Head Coach of the Aztecs until his death. Even when his playing career was over, Gwynn was not through with baseball. Under Gwynn the Aztecs won one regular season Mountain West title, two Mountain West Tournament Championships, and made three appearances in the NCAA Tournament. The transition from playing to coaching is often difficult for the greats, but Gwynn seemed to thrive on the challenge and was building a successful program. Unfortunately we will never see what he could have built with more seasons as a Head Coach either at San Diego State or even with the Padres.
Tony Gwynn lived a full baseball life. He was and always will be Mr. Padre and Captain Video. Despite the hours of hard work looking to get every last once of talent out of his body, Gwynn never stopped smiling. That smile we all fell in love with, the smile that exuded the boyish pleasure Gwynn got from playing the game. That smile is gone too soon due to cancer. Cancer which Gwynn himself admits was caused by decades of using chewing tobacco, usually more than a can a day. All the smiles and laughter that made Tony Gwynn also had a protruding lip stuffed with dip.
Gone too soon. Thank you Tony Gwynn for reminding us all that you can be a contact hitter, trying to go through the 5.5 hole, one of the true legends in the history of the game all without the power to hit 500 foot home runs which became so common place during his career. Tony Gwynn was a great hitter, a great all around baseball player, but he was an even better person. Mr. Padre will be missed in San Diego and anywhere people play baseball.