If you're not old enough to remember, you may not believe it, but there was a time when Tony Gwynn was an incredible athlete, not just in the sense that he had the freakish hand-eye coordination of an eight-time National League batting champion, but in the sense that he could run and jump with anyone. There are traces of it in the numbers—this is a man who stole as many as 56 bases in a season, and won Gold Glove awards in five of six years at one point—but they still don't quite capture just how quick he was in his physical prime.
Because he played so long past that prime, this aspect of his greatness can go underappreciated. There have been plenty of players who had the gifts to be special, but not the dedication, and plenty who had the dedication, but not the gifts. Gwynn had both, so that even after his body betrayed him, he was still a truly great player, the kind worth buying a ticket to see. This was what made him a legend.
Gwynn grew up in Los Angeles in a happy blue collar family and attended high school at Long Beach Polytechnic, a football factory that's sent athletes ranging from Billie Jean King to Chase Utley off into the world. He played baseball there, but basketball was his ticket. Listed, perhaps generously, at 5'11", he had a good handle and could dunk, and won a scholarship to San Diego State, where he set school assists records and made third-team All-American as a ballplayer almost as a sideline. When he was young and winning batting titles for the San Diego Padres, you could see it in his game—not just in the quick, strong wrists he always said he'd built by dribbling, but in the first step that could set him off across the outfield or careening toward second in a way no one built the way he was should have been able to do.
This may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear Gwynn's name. Later in his career, when he had bad knees and was carrying well more than 220 pounds, he was thought of principally as a scientific hitter, someone whose preparation and specialized abilities allowed him to overcome his body, and there was something to that. When he was in high school, his older brother Charles turned him on to Ted Williams's The Science of Hitting, and throughout his career Gwynn thought deeply about what worked and what didn't at the plate. He always was a bit different from Williams, though, and when it came time for him to write his own book, it showed in the title. His was called The Art of Hitting. It marked a minor yet real distinction.
In 1990, coming off a three-year run in which he'd hit .341 and won three straight batting titles, Gwynn featured as one of the leads in George Will's Men at Work, a better and subtler book than the author's reputation might have you think, and one that offers some of the best insights into how Gwynn went about his business. It gets into everything from the kind of bats he used to the differences between getting a change-up early and late in the count to the way he didn't even try to read pitchers (he read the ball) to his basic philosophy of "See the ball and react." Greg Maddux once explained that you could trick any hitter into not being able to read the speed of a pitch—"Except for that fucking Tony Gwynn."
This of course doesn't mean that he didn't study tells and tendencies, or methodically think through situations and approaches—he did—but just that as he thought of it, scientific hitting was less about outthinking the pitcher than controlling himself and what he was doing. A passage in which Gwynn, an early proponent of video analysis, breaks down footage of one of his at-bats for Will is worth quoting at length for the way it shows his method:
To know if he is swinging correctly, he counts the frames from when the pitcher lets go of the ball until his, Gwynn's, front shoulder "opens up"—turns to the right. Gwynn watches as the Cubs' Rick Sutcliffe releases the ball toward the Gwynn on the screen, and as the tape ticks along from frame to frame, Gwynn counts, "There's one... two... three... four... five... six... seven... eight... nine... ten... There," he says with satisfaction at the high count, "ten frames. That means I'm staying on the ball. I'm keeping my front shoulder in and staying back. If I open it up before then, I'm through, I'm out in front." On the swing he has just watched on tape, he drove the ball for a hit. On the next swing, in the next at bat on the tape, he counts "...seven... right... nine—I'm gone." At frame nine he was too far forward. "See," he says, "instead of going into the ball, I went like—" here he jumps to his feet to demonstrate how his front shoulder turned too soon toward the right of the plate. "That's what I was doing for the first two and a half months, all the time." Could he see the problem on film at that time? Yes, but "I didn't need to see it. I knew."
What Gwynn is describing here is what it's like to be a physical genius, to know by feel the difference between reacting at 9/30ths of a second and 10/30ths of a second. It's easy to look at all of those batting titles, or his incredible averages against some of the most cerebral pitchers of his time—.444 against John Smoltz, .415 against Greg Maddux, .390 against Curt Schilling, .333 against Pedro Martinez, .303 against Tom Glavine—and assume that he was just outthinking them at the plate. (Unbelievable fact: in 366 plate appearances against those five, he struck out five times. Five.) His true secret, though, was the way he controlled his body.
This control was tied up in his athletic gifts, and something he developed from an early age. (He and his brothers used to wrap up socks in rubber bands and pick figs off trees and hit them around the backyard with bats they'd fished out of the trash. The yard was long but it wasn't wide, which meant, he said, "we had to be pull hitters if we didn't want to lose our sockball.") It never left him. And it, along with his exceptionally close study of the art and science of hitting, was what allowed him to reinvent himself later in his career.
Over his first decade as a professional, Gwynn was an opposite field hitter, making his money in what he called the 5.5 hole—the gap between short and third. From 1990 to 1992, though, what he'd always done didn't work quite as well as it always had. He hit just (just!) .314 in those years; his body was in decline, and he wasn't beating out the long throws to first the way he once had. What changed things was a chance meeting with Ted Williams at the 1992 All-Star Game, described—like his backyard games—in Before the Glory, by Billy Staples and Rick Herschlag.
As this version of the story has it, Williams sauntered into the National League dugout, picked up Gwynn's bat, pretended to use it as a toothpick, and said, "Hey, Tony. What are you doing with this piece of crap?" Then they got down to talking hitting. Williams being Williams, he always did appreciate a smart hitter, and he preached to Gwynn about how baseball history was made on the inside pitch. It was a revelation to Gwynn, who adjusted his game ever so slightly, in accord with Williams's philosophy of endless patience followed on with quick reactions, to pull the ball with more authority.
The year before Williams offered his counsel, Gwynn hit .315 on pulled balls; the year after, .587. And in the five years following it, he hit .368, won four batting titles, and made a very serious run at being the first hitter since Williams to hit .400, which he may have done if not for the 1994 strike. If you want to see something great, watch Williams's face light up when he meets his student on the field at the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway Park:
A moment like that is everything wonderful about Tony Gwynn. It wasn't just his unreal achievements, or the joy he communicated on the field, or the unlikely sight of a player who looked the way he did doing the things he could do, that made him so loved. It was the very real, very true sense in which he represented a continuity between past and present, making the game Ted Williams played our own and so making all of baseball's claims about history and tradition true, at least when he was working. There was no one else like him, and baseball is immeasurably lessened for his passing.
Photo via Associated Press