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What Rogers Hornsby and Honus Wagner were to their generation, that's what the late, great Tony Gwynn was to his generation.
He didn't play baseball in an age when men routinely hit .424 or .404. He played in an era when it was big news if anyone even got within 50 points of that. Except for the fact he did that every darned year, no matter what.
Then again, he also didn't play baseball in an age when we were obsessed with walks, or on-base-percentage, or wRC+. So maybe, if someone like Tony Gwynn arrived in the big leagues tomorrow, we wouldn't value him quite the way we appreciated him in his own time.
But all I know is this: I've never seen anyone, in my years covering baseball, who mastered the art of bat meeting ball as brilliantly, or as artfully, as Tony Gwynn.
On the day he retired 13 years ago, I took a look at his incredible hitting genius, measured through the columns on the stat sheet he owned like no one else -- the batting average column, the hits column and the strikeouts (or lack thereof) column.
I've updated those numbers now, in the wake of the awful news of Tony Gwynn's death. But his feats are as amazing today as they were back then. And I have a feeling that won't change -- for about the next 12 centuries:
• Gwynn hit .338 over a 20-year career. No one else whose career started after World War II has even gotten closer than 10 points of him -- at least no one with 5,000 plate appearances or more.
• In the 14 seasons from 1984 through 1997, Gwynn finished in the top five in the batting race 13 times. And in the only season he didn't -- in 1990 -- he missed by one hit.
• He had three different seasons in which he hit .370 or higher. In the 73 years since Ted Williams last hit .400, all the other hitters who passed through the big leagues -- a group that includes Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Wade Boggs, yadda, yadda, yadda -- combined to do it only eight times.
|In addition to this double in 1993, Tony Gwynn had 3,140 other hits in his 20-year career.|
• No hitter born after 1900 reached 3,000 hits in fewer games (2,284) or at-bats (8,874) than Gwynn. In the history of baseball, only Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie got there faster -- and when they played, the gloves were made of the same material as those trains they rode on.
• No 3,000-hit man who was born after 1900 had a higher lifetime batting average than Gwynn (.338). In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau's Steve Hirdt, no hitter born since 1918 (i.e., since Ted Williams) has even gotten 2,000 hits and had an average this high.
• No hitter who has played his entire career since the invention of the designated hitter has accumulated as many hits as Gwynn (3,141) without spending a large portion of his career in the American League. But Gwynn got every one of his hits in the National League. And he was proud of that.
• Gwynn had six straight seasons (and eight altogether) in which he struck out fewer than 20 times. Did you know there were 97 hitters in the big leagues who whiffed at least 20 times just last month?
• Finally, what does it mean to have piled up a .338 batting average over a 20-year career, over 9,288 at-bats? It means Tony Gwynn would have had to go 0-for-his-next-1,183 to get his average to fall under .300 (and even then, it would have "plummeted" to a mere .29997). We kid you not.
OK, got all that digested. Here comes more.
• Gwynn got hits off Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton and Phil Niekro -- four men who won a combined 1,282 games.
• He hit .400 or better against eight different Cy Young winners -- Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Bret Saberhagen, Vida Blue, John Denny, Dennis Eckersley, Mark Davis and Doug Drabek -- and batted at least .300 against seven more.
• He racked up 39 hits off Maddux (39-for-94, .415), 32 against Smoltz (32-for-72, .444) and 30 against Tom Glavine (30-for-99, .303).
• And none of these pitchers ever struck him out: Pedro Martinez (35 AB), Hideo Nomo (25 AB), Mike Hampton (33 AB) or, incredibly, Maddux (in 94 AB).
"When he strikes out swinging," his old hitting coach, Merv Rettenmund, once told me, "the pitcher's shocked. He's shocked. Everybody in the stadium is shocked. He's the best hitter I've seen in 35 years."
For two decades, Tony Gwynn was also the best friend those of us in the media-genius prediction business ever had. Why? Because, thanks to him, you never had to dread that annual spring assignment of picking the batting champ. Heck, we knew, he knew and everyone else knew who was going to win that NL batting title before anyone even threw a pitch.
So maybe we never saw Hornsby or Wagner or Tris Speaker hit a baseball. But we were lucky enough to see Tony Gwynn fire baseballs all over the field, into open spaces from coast to coast, for 20 years. We'll be proud to tell our grandchildren we did.