You climb a mountaintop to learn philosophy from a guru. You visit Mexico City to study scale from Diego Rivera’s murals. You flip open Hemingway to understand writing.
In the afterlife, you’ll listen to Tony Gwynn when it comes to hitting. Not only is he one of the greatest to ever ply the trade, but he also appeared to be much less of an asshole than his lineal ancestors in that role—Ted Williams and Ty Cobb.
For that’s the company we must judge Gwynn—who died this week at 54 from salivary gland cancer—by, his only equals in the task of standing in the batter’s box.
Gwynn, the former San Diego Padre rightfielder, retired in 2001 with a career batting average of .338, higher than anyone save Williams beyond the halfway point of the last century.
Trying to explain how he hit would be like explaining how Stephen Hawking comprehends the universe—attempts at anything deeper than admiration are borderline impossible. The numbers bear out his genius—the man struck out once per every 21.4 at-bats, something else nobody has done in the last six decades. His 2,378 singles—he notched 3,141 career hits—were largely pulled through the left side of the infield, snuck through the “5.5” hole between the likely two best arms in any infield, the shortstop and third baseman. I remember this being the talent Gwynn hung on to after his physical tools faded, but for a man who enjoyed a 15-year prime*—from a Padres World Series appearance in 1984 to 1999—there was so much more to his game. Five gold gloves, multiple 30-plus steal seasons and even a 56-swipe campaign in 1987 and a memorable 1998 World Series homerun against the Yankees. Tony Gwynn, ballplayer, shouldn’t be forgotten in our adulation of Tony Gwynn, hitter.
Gwynn also stands out for conducting his entire athletic career in San Diego. Recognizing modern players for staying in one town their whole career is generally a cheap endeavor meant to deride the open market—congrats, Joe Blow, you were modest enough to take the millions the club that drafted you offered instead of testing the open market for more. What courage!
Gwynn manages to take a poke at that narrative, though—likely for a single through the left side of the infield. He came America’s Finest City as an 18-year old point guard for San Diego State and never left. Starring in both sports for the Aztecs—he was drafted by the then San Diego Clippers and Padres on the same day—Gwynn became saturated in synonymy with the city. He is and likely ever will be Mr. Padre, a seemingly warm individual who embodied a franchise that doesn’t have the cache belonging to the two teams up the coast in its own division—San Francisco and L.A. On a figurative level, his anonymous toiling in one of the West Coast’s smaller markets (the Padres land a national TV date about once for every ten times you see the Angels, Cubs, Red Sox, Yankees or Dodgers) is analogous to the city’s large military community. The rest of the country purports to respect and honor them without really having a damn clue what it is they do.
Like Tim Brown in football, his legacy nationally will never match his legend locally. After his playing days wrapped up, Gwynn hired on to coach baseball at San Diego State, on Tony Gwynn Field, and call Padres games on TV from time to time. His statue stands outside Petco Park—a stadium he never played in during the days he called the concrete cavern of crap that is Qualcomm (nee Jack Murphy) Stadium home—and his name graces the street alongside the beautiful ballpark. Locals who became sports fans at 10 watching him dish assists for the Aztecs (their all-time leader for both single season and career marks in that stat) are now in their late 40s and probably don’t remember the town’s sports scene without Gwynn.
That brings us to the saddest chapter in Gwynn’s tale. The lovefest was supposed to go on. For a man so universally admired in a town he so openly adored to die of a (probably) preventable form of cancer—he attributed it to his many years of chewing tobacco use— at a relatively young age is a damned shame. Gwynn fell victim to a habit far too many young male athletes find attractive for God knows what reason, plus nicotine. Gwynn was rarely spotted without a lip in, and eventually got the distended look in his cheeks and bottom lip that are the telltale signs of regular chewers. A spit cup followed him everywhere, and quitting was excruciatingly difficult for a man who made a routine out of everything. Indeed, in the seeds he sowed to make himself an all-planet hitter—repetition of motion, strict adherence to routine—were the seeds of his own downfall when chew became an ingrained part of the daily grind.
Like a great artist who begins to conceive of drugs as a pillar of their work rather than an inhibitor, so Gwynn was tied to tobacco, and later he spoke at length about the difficulty he had in quitting it.
We should be talking about the guru, the man who found the shortest path to the ball and became symbiotic with a city that adopted him. Instead we’re talking about a vice claiming a seemingly pure soul—both as a sportsman and person. There was no joy in Mudville that day.