I grew up watching pitching clinics on the mound in, both, old Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium and Turner Field. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz were the standard bearers when it came to Cy Young level performances.
But when Tony Gwynn came to town, it was all about the art of hitting.
Tony Gwynn, the most decorated player in San Diego Padres history and arguably the best hitter of my lifetime, died Monday at the age of 54. He battled cancer of the mouth the last few years of his life
By now the statistics and stories have started to roll in from all over. You’ve probably read over on Yahoo! how Gwynn, against the most dominant pitchers of my lifetime, struck out an unheard of three times in 323 at-bats. You might have seen Fox Sports point out his propensity for stealing bases early in his career (he finished with 319 steals for his career including 56 in 1987). One statistic that I haven’t seen written yet but should be pointed out is that between 1991 and 1998 Gwynn averaged 19 strikeouts per season. 19. That equals out to about three strikeouts per month over the course of an entire baseball season.
That doesn’t happen anymore.
Gwynn’s exploits on the baseball diamond were legendary, but his impact off the field were just as meaningful. I’ve lived in Southern California for a year now and have attended a handful of Padres games. I can tell you for a fact that what he has done for baseball in this part of the state should never be understated.
Ask any Padres fan or native of San Diego within earshot of you and they all have a Tony Gwynn story. It could be the San Diego State graduate who remembers when Gwynn broke the assists record for the schools basketball team and was an All-Conference (WAC) and All-American Outfielder for the Aztecs baseball team. Maybe it is the young boy who attended a camp that Gwynn was a part of and remembers that he was told to stay inside the baseball and never hesitate to hit a ball to the opposite field if that is all the pitcher is going to give you. Maybe it is the current San Diego Aztec baseball player who points out, nothing on the field, but Gwynn’s role in improving the teams academic standing every year from 2007-2012 (something they were hit with NCAA sanctions for). Or maybe it is the executive who grew up in San Diego and says, without hesitation even today, that Gwynn is the reason he became and remains a San Diego Padres fan. The stories are limitless for a man whose impact was immeasurable on that community.
He also had his chances to leave.
In today’s era of big money contracts Gwynn, by comparison, made a little over $47 million during the course of his career (per baseball-reference.com). By market standards it is a criminally low sum for a player whose 66.2 career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) put him two above current Detroit Tiger Miguel Cabrera (who just signed a contract with Detroit that will take his career earnings well above $300 million dollars). But that wasn’t important to Gwynn; he knew the importance of staying local and finishing his career where, by every account, it originally started. Yes he got pressure from the player’s union, but what makes his decision not to leave for greener pastures so significant was that he didn’t fold to that pressure, he did what was right for himself and his family no matter the dollar amount.
Something else that may not happen anymore.
One of the lasting memories I have of Tony Gwynn may have been his performance in the 1998 World Series. Against a New York Yankees team that won 114 games and lead the American League in earned run average (ERA), fewest hits allowed, and struck out 1,080 batters (good for fourth in the American League) Gwynn put on quite the show. He hit .500 (8-for-16), with an on-base percentage of .529, OPS of 1.217, a home run, three RBI’s, and zero strikeouts. Want some perspective on that? In 2013 every batter who registered an at-bat at some point in the World Series struck out at least once.
Tony Gwynn’s legacy in San Diego, to the Padres, and to Major League Baseball can’t be properly summed up in a column, but one thing is for certain: “Mr. Padre” will always be Tony Gwynn.