ENID, Okla. —
Tony Gwynn was a hitter.
Oh, he was an outfielder as well, but primarily he was a hitter.
He was one of the best hitters of his era, but he made it look effortless. He would coil at the plate with the bat held just behind his head, then when a pitch sailed into his hitting zone he would reach out, flick his bat and send the ball sailing into the outfield, where it found a new home on the turf.
He didn’t swing for the fences, he was not a slugger, he was a hitter — singles, doubles, triples, it didn’t matter. Occasionally a ball would leave the yard, but that was not his goal. His aim was simply to put the ball safely in play.
He hit 543 doubles, 85 triples and 135 home runs during his big league tenure with the San Diego Padres. That means 2,378 of his 3,141 career hits were singles. Singles aren’t sexy, singles don’t set off fireworks high above the scoreboard, singles don’t wind up on the cable sports shows’ highlight reels.
All singles do is produce runs and help win baseball games.
Tony Gwynn scored 1,383 runs in his 20-year major league career, and drove in 1,138. That’s what hitters do.
Tony Gwynn won eight batting championships and seven National League Silver Slugger awards, given annually to the best offensive player at each position in each league.
Gwynn studied hitting with arguably the best hitter who ever lived, Ted Williams. Williams, the last major league hitter to hit .400 in a season, predicted the next one to do it would be Tony Gwynn.
Had the 1994 season not been cut short by a labor dispute, he might have done it, too. On Aug. 11 that year, the final day of play before the player strike shut down the game, Gwynn was hitting .394.
He might have faltered down the stretch, but he might have done it, might have finished with a an average of .400 or better. It was hard to bet against Tony Gwynn when he had a bat in his hand.
It was hard to get Tony Gwynn out. A lot of pitchers tried, and failed. You sure weren’t going to strike him out. Over 9,288 career at-bats, he fanned only 434 times.
Tony Gwynn sent many opposing pitchers trudging to the showers, muttering to themselves, as he stood on base smiling, having recorded yet another hit, having plated yet another run.
It took cancer to finally stop Tony Gwynn, which it did Monday at the age of 54.
He blamed his ailment, salivary gland cancer, on his long-held habit of chewing tobacco, which used to be a common vice in baseball.
All forms of smokeless tobacco have been banned from the minor leagues since 1993, but big league baseball stopped short, instead restricting and discouraging its use, but not forbidding it altogether.
The cancer settled in Gwynn’s right cheek. He had two surgeries, the second requiring doctors to remove a facial nerve in his cheek because it was intertwined with a tumor. They had to graft a nerve from Gwynn’s neck to restore his facial movement.
All the while, Gwynn stayed in baseball. After retiring from the game after the 2001 season, Gwynn became a coach with San Diego State, his alma mater.
Tony Gwynn’s legacy is secure. He is already in the baseball Hall of Fame and will forever be known as Mr. Padre.
But major league baseball should honor the 15-time all-star in a more lasting, more meaningful way.
MLB should ban the use of all smokeless tobacco products by its players, coaches or managers, and call it the Tony Gwynn rule.
It would be a fitting tribute to one of the game’s all-time greats.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at email@example.com.