The world lost not only one of the greatest baseball players of all-time this week, but one of the finest representatives for baseball, sports and humans of all kinds. The death of this wonderful man at the early age of 54-years-old was a loss for all of us.
My first awareness of Tony Gwynn came early as he followed me by just one year after I graduated from San Diego State University. Fascinatingly, he came to the Aztecs as a highly-heralded basketball point guard and did not even play baseball at SDSU his first year. He became such a stand out in both sports that he was drafted in 1981 by both the San Diego Padres and the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Clippers. He decided he was too small to make it in professional basketball, thus gracing the baseball world with an athlete who became one of the greatest hitters in history and a wonderful all-around player.
Even though he never played for one of my favorite teams, he soon became one of my favorite players. A true baseball fan recognizes individual greatness even if the player is on a team you despise (think Derek Jeter of the Yankees). Gwynn, who came to the majors in 1982 after a short stint in the minors, showed a little flash of his hitting ability by batting .289 in 56 games that year. That was the last time he dipped below a .300 average; his next 19 seasons were over that mark, establishing a streak only exceeded by one player in 150 years of baseball – Ty Cobb.
Gwynn made the art of hitting look simple. But even for him it was not. He applied to hitting a baseball Thomas Edison’s famous statement that genius is “one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Gwynn simply outworked everyone else. As chronicled in George Will’s Men at Work, which I believe to be the best book ever written about baseball, Gwynn mastered the art of hitting by studying and practicing. In Will’s 70 pages on Gwynn, one learned how he was one of the first to use video tape to dissect every aspect of his swing and his at bats. The book was published four years before Gwynn toyed with hitting .400, a milestone last achieved in 1941 by arguably the greatest hitter of the modern era – Ted Williams. Gwynn was a lesson to us all that greatness comes from hard work.