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Sunday, June 15, 2014
A superhero in the batter's box

By Buster Olney
ESPN.com

As you walked through the doors of the San Diego Padres' clubhouse at Jack Murphy Stadium, into a rectangular room, Tony Gwynn's locker was in the far right corner, right next to the manager's office. Behind that, there was a small space, like a personal library, that served as Tony's science lab of hitting.

All were welcome, including reporters -- like me, when I was assigned to cover the Padres for the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1993 and 1994. Tony was one of the greatest hitters of all time, in the midst of a career in which he won eight batting titles and finished with a .338 lifetime average. But he also understood that if he made the game accessible to reporters through him, then that meant fans were included, too.

These days, every team in the majors has a mountain of video equipment and video operators. But Tony may well have been the first player to consistently use this technology in his constant search for hits. In fact, the video equipment that was in that little room belonged to Tony; he had bought it with his own money.

Tony Gwynn
Shortly after his election to the Hall of Fame in January 2007, Tony Gwynn acknowledged his fans.

So if you asked him a question about an at-bat, or something that he was doing at the plate, Tony would pull you into a side room and run back the video and narrate what was on the screen for you. Once, he mashed a pivotal hit against the Dodgers, and afterward, he explained to me exactly what he had said to a teammate in the on-deck circle --- that Omar Daal would try to beat him with his little (expletive) slider and then he would turn on it and drive it into the gap. He spoke anecdotally, with exceptional recall of context and words, and painted pictures. When he laughed, his shoulders shook, and he laughed a lot when talking about the daily challenges of playing a game filled with failure.

No wonder Ted Williams loved talking with him and Tony loved talking with Ted; they spoke the same language, had the same precise understanding of what they wanted to do with each pitch of each at-bat.

Gwynn had chronic knee troubles in the early '90s; but in 1994, he was relatively healthy, and he was hitting better than he had in any season of his career. In late July, the Padres took a trip through Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston; during those 10 games, he had 19 hits in 40 at-bats, with one strikeout, pushing his batting average from .386 to .394.

He had a bat that he used only against pitchers who relied on soft stuff -- a special bat because it had so few grains. "Nine Grains of Pain," he called it, and he told me that if he got to the final weeks of the season and he had a shot to reach .400, he intended to use that bat in every game. In the world of hitters, this was like Clark Kent telling you he was about to jump into a phone booth. He had the smallest bat in the league, maybe the smallest hands, the softest handshake -- as if he were protecting the tools of his trade -- but the man was a superhero in the batter's box.

The players went on strike in August of '94 and Tony didn't get the chance to do the same thing his friend Ted had done. Whenever an athlete nears an achievement, part of the conversation is whether he or she will melt under pressure, whether the scrutiny will reduce them. Tony would've loved the pressure of a chase at .400. He would've held court before the game and after, talking baseball, and in between he would've gotten one or two or three hits. I will always be convinced that he would've hit .400 that season. I'm sure of it. He loved the stage.

He played in one more World Series after that, in 1998, and naturally, he had eight hits in 16 at-bats. Perhaps he could've steered his career to a bigger market and had more postseason opportunity, but Tony and his wife Alicia had long since decided that he would stay in San Diego. He had been born in Southern California, set the all-time assist record on San Diego State's basketball team, and time and again he had signed long-term, team-friendly deals to stay with the Padres. He told me about angry phone calls with union leaders who wanted him to push the market; but as genial as Tony could be, he was stubborn and independent and nobody was going to tell him what to do. He wanted to play in San Diego and he never wore a uniform other than that of the Padres.

Tony Gwynn
Tony Gwynn played 20 years in the majors and finished his career with a .338 batting average.

After 1992, the Padres ownership decided to dump almost all of its best players, believing they couldn't support their salaries. And so one after another, Tony Fernandez and Darrin Jackson and Gary Sheffield and Bruce Hurst and Greg Harris and Fred McGriff were swapped in what became known in San Diego as the fire sale. Only Gwynn and Andy Benes were left among the team's established players, and the team went 61-101. The morning after the McGriff trade, my responsibility was to find Gwynn and ask him about the franchise being stripped down. I knew he was disgusted, but didn't know whether he would want to talk.

"Buster, are you looking for me?" Gwynn said, after I stepped into the clubhouse, and then he led me to his science lab of hitting and spoke for 30 minutes -- honestly, plainly, in his distinct high-pitched voice.

Tony got mad at me once that I recall. His father passed away during the offseason, and the following spring, I wrote a long story about it. So many of the people that I spoke to about his dad referred to him as Charlie, in conversation, and this is how I referred to him in the article. It turned out that Charles Gwynn did not like the nickname, and because he didn't, Tony didn't. It was a mistake that hurt, because Charles Gwynn was just 57 when he passed away, and was gone far too soon.

I had thought of Charles Gwynn a lot through the years, fearing for his son's health; and after Tony was diagnosed with cancer, his former players and friends provided updates. Stephen Strasburg, who played for Gwynn at San Diego State, was worried about him, and so was John Kruk, who couldn't get a phone call returned recently. Tony was open in talking about baseball, but he hated anybody feeling sorry for him, and his fight with cancer was private.

Last Thursday, John Boggs, Gwynn's close friend and longtime agent, spent some time with him; and Sunday, he had called Gwynn to wish him a happy Father's Day. The phone was put on speaker, and Gwynn's family told him: "Speak up, he can hear you."

Boggs received a call from Alicia Gwynn at 1:15 a.m. Monday, as he recalled tearfully over the phone. He paused and said, "It hits me in waves."

Tony Gwynn was 54, at the end of a gifted life that he shared with so many others.