Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tony Gwynn, RIP: Real

By Jeff Kallman

When George F. Will took the plunge from interrupting his customary sociopolitical columns with periodic (and frequent) mash notes to the game he loves to a complete book, the impeccable Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball, he sectioned it into studies of the pitcher, the manager, the batter, and the defender. "The Batter" was subtitled "Tony Gwynn's Muscle Memory." Will had in mind Gwynn's mind as well as his arms, wrists, hands, and body.

"Emotionally," Will wrote therein, "he is perfect. Gwynn is an almost unfailingly cheerful man who is almost always trying to be morose. Trying, but failing. He may be the most liked player in baseball. That is because of the radical difference between his amiableness toward others and his severity toward himself. His ability to combine intense competitiveness and agreeableness makes him the antithesis of the best player in history to combine, as Gwynn does, a high batting average and a lot of stolen bases."

Nobody would ever have tried to deny Gwynn — the Hall of Famer who died Monday at 54, following a long, harsh run with assorted mouth cancers he traced directly to using smokeless tobacco — a batting title by playing the infield back deliberately so that a competitor running neck and neck with him could inflate his average on the season's final day by beating out seven straight bunt singles. The St. Louis Browns tried to do Napoleon Lajoie that favor when he was in a dead heat with Ty Cobb in 1910.

Only once in anyone's memory was there any known animosity toward Gwynn. That was in May 1990, when his then-teammate Jack Clark exploded in the clubhouse during a team meeting and thundered, after throwing a Coke against a wall, "The reason why the Padres suck is because Tony Gwynn is a selfish mother." At least Gwynn knew his enemy in that moment. So did haunted pitcher Eric Show, whom Clark also singled out for similar critique. What Gwynn never learned was which teammate (he was convinced the Padres' saying it was an unnamed groundskeeper was an organizational cover-up) broke the arms and legs off a doll in his likeness and hung it by a noose in the clubhouse.

The apparent objections seem now to be somewhere between absurd and surreal. Gwynn was accused (accused, mind you) of bunting with men on base rather than pulling ground balls. Some called it bids to protect his gaudy batting averages. Others might call it trying to take one for the team. Still others thought it harked back to some comments Gwynn had made in the press questioning the Padres' salary structuring and The following spring training, Gwynn himself called it knowing the things he could and couldn't do.

"I'd go to the plate and say, 'Here's a situation where I don't pull the ball off this guy because he's pitching me away, but if I bunt, I'm selfish'," he told Tim Kurkjian, then a Sports Illustrated writer. "So I'd go up there and try to pull, forget about getting a hit, just try to pull. But that's not what I do. I'm a straightaway hitter. People should know if I say I can't do something, then I can't, and respect that. I don't have to answer to anybody on my club who criticized me for my style."

Gwynn also reference the accusation of bunting to shield his average. "I just don't believe," he said, "that you can sit on your average in May."

Gwynn's teammates also never would have deigned to send an enemy batsman a congratulatory telegram on the threshold of beating Gwynn for a batting title. The 1910 Tigers sent Lajoie just that — before American League President Ban Johnson foiled the Browns' Lajoie boost by crediting Cobb with enough extra extra base hits to put him a point ahead to win the title.

This is a player who won several awards honoring not his playing achievements but his humanitarianism. A player who was named to 15 consecutive National League All-Star teams and started every one but three. A player who was practically guaranteed to be on base every time up. Did we mention that, in addition to 209 hits, 92 runs scored, and 52 walks, Gwynn averaged 29 strikeouts per 162 games lifetime? Or that he averaged 109 runs created per 162 lifetime?

After Will published Men at Work, he was taken to task by Yale historian and classicist Donald Kagan in The Public Interest. (Will cheerfully republished Kagan's critique and his own response in Bunts.) Kagan essentially accused Will of denying the game's romance and heroism: "In hard times, however, and all times are in some way hard, we need greater and more potent heroes — to tell us not what all of us can do but what only the best of us can do ... What we need are heroes like [Bernard] Malamud's Roy Hobbs."

Gwynn, whose workmanship at play Will admired as Kagan abhorred it for its lack of heroism, was not without his heroic qualities. In Game 1 of the 1998 World Series, Gwynn squared up the Yankees' David Wells with the game tied 2-2 and one out with two on in the top of the fifth and drove the first service into the upper deck. Gwynn was miserable after the game — not just because his team lost (the Yankees put the game away with a seven-run seventh thanks to a three-run homer and a grand slam off two Padres relievers), but because of the big deal reporters made of his mammoth blast.

"Have they seen me play before?" he asked Tom Verducci, then with Newsday, who'd approached him amiably and praised his restraint under such lame questionings. "It's not like it's the first home run I've ever hit. I've hit a few before and I've hit a few longer than that. Give me a break."

Will tried to do just that: "Kagan finds it antiheroic that Gwynn 'knows his limitations and accepts them' ... Gwynn, unlike Kagan's hero Roy Hobbs, does not perform deeds that are 'magical.' Gwynn is also unlike Hobbs in another way, one that should seize the attention and kindle the empathy of any author of a 'conservative critique': Hobbs is fictional; Gwynn is real."

As real as the smile that only rarely turned into a frown, the genuine love for the game that coursed through even his most stubborn professional activities and adjuncts (his wife carried a video recorder and player with her husband, shooting video incessantly, so he could study and improve not just his own batting techniques but his knowledge of opposing pitchers), and prompted him to jump immediately from the serious work of play to teaching his charges at San Diego State not just to play but to love the game as deeply as he did.

And, a man who hit .349 lifetime with the bases loaded and two out, who hit just about exactly the same whether his team was ahead (.344) or behind (.345), .500 with the bases loaded and nobody out, .353 when the game was late and close, .321 overall with two out and men in scoring position, and .393 in extra innings. Some people might tell you that performances such as that would be their own kind of heroic performances, performed by a smiling craftsman who saw himself as such. A craftsman, that is.

Contents copyright © Sports Central 1998-2017