A Credit to Cooperstown
Tony Gwynn's 97.6 percent of this year's Hall of Fame vote and first-year induction in Cooperstown is well deserved. In the postwar era, only Ted Williams has surpassed Gwynn's .338 career average.
What made Gwynn stand out in the 1990s was his willingness and insistence on stroking line drives rather than swinging for the fences. "I'm comfortable with my style," he said on numerous occasions, and the results proved that statement to be true.
While many of his 3141 hits came on opposite field ropes and grounders in the "5.5" hole between short and third, Gwynn could also pull an inside pitch for extra bases and hit the occasional home run. The other numbers - eight National League batting titles, including a career-best .394 in 1994, six other times above .350, five 200-hit seasons and seven years as the NL leader in hits - are truly impressive.
All this was done with a 32 1/2 or 33-inch bat that weighed a mere 30 or 30 1/2 ounces. Gwynn's self-described "peashooter" was a deadly weapon in his skilled hands. While most players use a 34 or 35-inch piece of lumber, Gwynn's choice shows a willingness to think for himself and go against conventional wisdom.
The batting titles and piles of hits didn't come easily. Gwynn worked tirelessly on his swing and defense (going from a mediocre outfielder to a five-time Gold Glover) in addition to being a pioneer in the use of video to find flaws in his swing and check out opposing pitchers.
In describing his approach to baseball, one word - "grinder" or "grinding" - is often used by Gwynn. That term comes from a work ethic passed from his parents, who held jobs at a warehouse and in the postal system to pay the bills and provide baseball equipment for their sons. Younger brother Chris hit .261 as a backup outfielder and pinch-hitter with three teams from 1987 to 1996.
Even though Gwynn has been retired since 2001, the family legacy lives on in the majors. Son Tony Jr. - a speedy centerfielder - made his big league debut (.260 in 77 ABs) with the Brewers in 2006.
The grinder mentality was especially evident in 1996. Playing on a partially torn right achilles tendon, Gwynn hit .353 to win his seventh NL batting title. The injury kept Gwynn from using his legs and driving the ball as much as normal, and opposing teams knew it.
"It was my toughest batting championship," Gwynn told me in a 1997 Baseball Digest interview. "I couldn't pull the ball much, so I hit a lot of dying quails to left and grounders up the middle. I felt like I was cheating. I was lucky to win the title."
Those quotes were pure Gwynn, a person who has always been quick to credit others and crack self-deprecating jokes. Asked about his play in right field, the sure-handed Gwynn replied, "I don't have the greatest arm, but it's pretty accurate. On defense, I just try to put myself where the ball is going to be hit. Just being smart and trying to anticipate what will happen counts for a lot in this game."
Need more stats and accomplishments? From 1991 to 1996, Gwynn struck out just 105 times in 2944 at-bats, never exceeding 19 whiffs in any season during that stretch. Many current players would gladly take Gwynn's six-year K total in a single campaign.
From 1993 to 1997, Gwynn had five consecutive seasons above .350. He happily credits Ted Williams for his advice to pull inside pitches when the opportunity presented itself. Tony still had plenty of opposite field knocks and hits up the middle, but his newfound willingness to pull the ball made him all the more dangerous and productive.
Even though the Padres went 1-8 in their only World Series appearances in 1984 and 1998, Gwynn didn't let the team down, as he hit .371 (13 for 35) over those nine games. The most memorable of those hits was a long home run at Yankee Stadium off David Wells in Game 1 of the '98 Fall Classic.
Professionalism and class? The final game of Gwynn's career took place against the Rockies at Qualcomm Stadium on October 7, 2001. A knee injury limited Gwynn to pinch hitting, and the stands were packed with fans eager to see one last at-bat from the line drive machine.
Teammate Rickey Henderson recognized the importance of the day and asked out of the lineup to keep the spotlight on Gwynn, who insisted that Henderson start in his usual leadoff role. That's because Rickey was parked at 2999 hits. Gwynn knew the 42-year-old Henderson couldn't be certain of another chance to reach the 3000-hit level, so he wanted a fellow future Hall of Famer to have the opportunity to nail it down.
Henderson blooped an opposite field double on the first pitch he saw to reach 3000, and he left the game at the end of the inning. Gwynn grounded out as a pinch hitter in a 14-5 loss. The player who turned down free agent opportunities to leave San Diego is still part of the community, as Gwynn has been the head coach at San Diego State (his alma mater) since 2003.
Congratulations, Tony. You deserve to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Thanks for playing the game with total dedication and being an inspiration to those of us who seldom cleared the fences.