TBT Baseball: In Memory Of Mr. Padre, Tony Gwynn

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    Updated: June 19, 2014
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    The baseball world is mourning again this week, so soon after struggling through the loss of Don Zimmer. Tony Gwynn, Mr. Padre, a man who meant so much to so many, passed away on Monday after a bout with salivary gland cancer. The condition was due to prolonged use of smokeless tobacco, which Gwynn had, in recent years, come out as a staunch opponent of. That he was battling was no secret in the baseball community, and this touching, poignant article by Jim Salisbury of csnphilly.com serves as a sobering mark along the timeline of his fight.

    There is little I can say about Tony Gwynn the ballplayer that hasn’t already been said in other articles. He was, hands down, the greatest pure hitter of our generation. I remember my first foray into understanding the world of baseball outside the Yankees began with collecting baseball cards in 1991. I poured over the stats on the back of every card, eager to absorb as much information as I could about each player. My favorite set was Fleer, not because of the design, but because the backs of the card had up to fourteen years’ worth of stats on them. 

    Other players meant much more to me, but I remember marveling at the stats on Tony Gwynn’s card: year after year of .300 hitting. I used to assemble All-Star lineups out of my baseball cards, fielding players who made up the best teams based purely on my fledgling understanding of their statistics. Tony Gwynn was always batting at the top of the NL order. 

    And that was without realizing how he terrorized the base-paths in his youth. I never got to see the lean, speedy Gwynn, but over the first six full seasons of his career (the ones with more than 500 plate appearances) he averaged 34 stolen bases a season. Those legs also helped him earn his five Gold Gloves over the period of 1986 to 1991, before his knees started to limit his speed and range. 

    Even without being able to leg out infield singles, he posted five of the six best averages of his career after age 32. He was the most maddening of outs for pitchers – patient at the plate, but swinging aggressively and almost always putting the ball in play. He only tallied more than 60 walks once in his career, but over the course of twenty seasons he struck out more than he walked only once – his rookie year, where he struck out 16 times against 14 walks. On Tuesday’s Yankees broadcast, Paul O’Neill was asking Al Leiter the scouting report for facing Gwynn. Leiter responded by saying, “The only thing we ever said about pitching to Tony was, ‘Don’t let the two guys ahead of him get on base.’” 

    Lucky for opposing pitchers, that wasn’t much of a problem. 

    One of the most amazing things about Gwynn’s playing career – apart from the stats themselves – was what he accomplished while playing on some remarkably terrible teams. One of the upcoming articles I’ve been working on is about Hall of Famers who “played in a void,” meaning that they had little to no help around them. As I was tossing the idea around to a couple of my buddies a few weeks ago, one of them brought up Gwynn. 

    “Were his teams really that bad?” I asked before doing any research. 

    “Well, he played for the Padres.” 

    And that’s all you need to know. I’ll save the metric for what constitutes a year with help for the actual column, suffice it to say that Gwynn had very few of them. In his twenty years in the bigs he had only seven “help years” – and even in those cases his best teammates rarely produced at a high level for very long. He had the first three seasons of Roberto Alomar’s career (before Alomar emerged as a perennial All-Star), two solid years each from the duos of Fred McGriff/Gary Sheffield and Ken Caminiti/Steve Finley (although only three of those constituted “help years”), and the tail end of Steve Garvey’s career. He tended to play with guys whose careers were either just beginning to take off or already starting to fade. When he wasn’t lucky enough to get even that level of help, his best teammates were guys like Quilvio Veras and Phil Plantier. It’s rare that anyone was confusing the San Diego Padres with Murderer’s Row. 

    But he made the most of what little support he had, managing to make it to the World Series twice – though he lost decisively both times. He was a fifteen time All-Star, won eight batting titles (over a span of thirteen years), and amassed seven Silver Slugger awards to go along with all those Gold Gloves – an impressive résumé by any standards. It’s no wonder he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer with 97.6% of the vote; and from what I’ve come to read about Gwynn, he probably wasn’t even mad at the thirteen guys who left him off their ballots – he was just happy to be there. 

    All of this is merely a measure of his abilities as a baseball player, and that seems to be the least of his accomplishments. In addition to being a dedicated family man and father, he was a pillar of his community, meaning so much to the city of San Diego. He was born in California, played college ball at San Diego State University, and spent his entire career with the Padres. He was respected and admired by peers, competitors, and fans, not just for how he approached the game, but how he approached life. Thanks for everything, Tony – you will be missed.

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