There is certain to be a great deal of ink and bandwidth spent on the legacy of Tony Gwynn over the coming days, and with good reason. Gwynn was one of the greatest pure hitters to ever play the game, winning eight batting titles over his 20 seasons, sitting 20th on the career batting average leader-board with a .338 mark. He was renowned for his enthusiasm for the game, always playing with a hop in his step and a smile on his face – he often made Ken Griffey Jr. look downright sullen by comparison. And most importantly, he was a wonderful human being; one that will be missed by family, friends, and fans alike.
Unfortunately, my own exposure to Tony Gwynn was fairly limited.
I first started appreciating baseball in 1994, when my Yankees-crazed godfather moved in with my family. He regaled me with tall tales about the giants of baseball past, and nudged me towards players that played the game “the right way.” Griffey, Cal Ripken Jr., Don Mattingly, Barry Larkin, and Wade Boggs were some of his favorite players, and he would often talk about their play as if they were heroes of some Greek mythology. That season, however, Gwynn held his attention like no other.
Each morning we would look at the newspaper to see where Gwynn stood in his chase of the elusive “400.” Truth be told, I knew little about the relevance and mathematics behind batting average at the time – I simply knew that batting .400 was magical. My godfather, who felt ancient to me, would tell me that nobody had reached those heights since well before he was born; a time that I could barely comprehend, given my godfather’s gray hairs and creaky knees. Looking back now, I see that he did not finish a game above .400 after May 15, but it felt as if he was always right there, with history ripe for the taking. And that is how Tony Gwynn became an immortal in my eyes.
My adoration of Gwynn does not end there, however. Four years later, well into my adolescence, the Yankees would meet the Padres in the World Series. To say that I was excited would be an understatement, at the very least. At the time, folk were discussing Gwynn as if he was in some stark decline – he had “only hit .321,” after all, and he was decidedly mediocre in the postseason through the first two rounds. At 12-years-old, I simply could not believe that Gwynn was washed-up; that I would not be seeing the player that helped me learn about the history of the game as it unfolded before my very eyes.
And, much to my delight, I was able to watch the Tony Gwynn that my memories and imagination had built into a baseball-hitting titan.
In the 1998 World Series, Gwynn batted .500/.529/.688. The Padres outfielder was a bit portlier than I remembered, but he still managed to make contact with everything. In true Tony Gwynn fashion, seven of his eight hits were singles (the other was a home run), he walked only once, and he did not strike out. He had at least one hit in all four games, and seemed to be as happy to be playing in the World Series as anyone I had ever seen.
For whatever reason, my most vivid memory of that entire series was Gwynn’s home run. “Tony Gwynn doesn’t hit home runs,” I thought – and yet there it went, sailing over the right field fence and nearly into the upper deck. Gwynn half-ran, half-trotted around the bases, looking every bit the part of a person that did not hit many home runs (even in an era where balls had begun flying out of parks at record paces). That home run gave the Padres a 4-2 lead, and, though I felt pangs of fear as my team fell behind, a smile crept across my face.
That would be the first and last time I saw Gwynn face the Yankees. Though interleague play began in 1997, the Yankees did not face the Padres again until 2002 – the year after Gwynn retired. While I would have loved to see him play again, particularly in-person, I am glad that I saw him at the height of his powers in the World Series, blooping a slew of singles and blasting one big-time home run against my Yankees.