Baseball lost one of its best today. Tony Gwynn died at the age of 54, which is really too young for anyone, but seems especially cruel in this particular case.
There has been an outpouring of sadness this morning from players and journalists who’ve had the pleasure of talking to Gwynn. I never got that opportunity, but I’ll remember his voice. Gwynn’s vocal cadence was distinctive and friendly at the same time, and a pleasure to listen to — like a rich person’s version of Avery Johnson’s. Although he was a genius at the plate, all I seem to remember hearing from Gwynn was how much he loved the game and its fans. As a kid I thought all ballplayers were like this. Year later, I know just how rare Gwynn’s all-encompassing love was.
My youth and a lack of televised baseball meant I missed most of Gwynn’s 319 stolen bases, since 221 came before 1990. However, doesn’t it seem like we saw him collect at least that many hits against the Giants? He actually went 308-for-878 (.351) in his career against San Francisco, but Gwynn wasn’t just a Giant-killer. He also had 305 hits against the Reds, 316 against the Braves and 320 against the Astros — three reminders of the old National League West.
Instead of the speedy Gwynn from the mid-1980s, I remember the portlier version who played baseball like a pool shark. He could send balls wherever he wanted, to all fields, with the kind of ease that made the rest of the NL look like blindfolded kids hacking away at a piñata. We may never see another player like Gwynn again, as batting average has taken a back seat to isolated power and on-base percentage.
Gwynn finished just one season with an average under .300: 1982, his rookie year, when he hit .289 in 190 at-bats.
Sympathizing with sports fans in San Diego isn’t done all that often around here, but they deserve our sympathy today. They’ve lost their two greatest heroes, Gwynn and Junior Seau, who not only played fantastically well but were determined to contribute to their communities both during and after their playing days. Neither man was able to bring San Diego its first major sports title. Seau’s Chargers fell to the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX. Gwynn’s Padres lost the 1984 World Series in five games to the Tigers.
In 1998, the Padres ran into one of the best teams of all time. I remember Gwynn’s performance in that World Series well — a sweep for the Yankees seemed almost preordained, but Gwynn’s performance (8-for-16 with a home run) will not be forgotten. Gwynn was sprinting toward 3,000 hits that season, with 148 in 1998 after a career-high 220 at age 37.
It’s hard to believe he’s already gone, just 17 years after that phenomenal season. Everyone seems to have a different lasting image of the Hall of Fame right fielder with the .338 lifetime average. Here’s mine: Gwynn rounding first after a line drive to right off some Giants pitcher, followed by a closeup of his smiling face while chatting with Will Clark or J.T. Snow.