day 19: mr. padre

Today is 19 days, which is two weeks and five days of the omer: hod she’b’tiferet.

You know why I like Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn. Yep, it’s in part because he spent his whole career with one team. Plus, since most of his career coincided with my living in Houston and the Astros still in the NL, I often saw him play. (In fact, he got his 1,000 hit against Houston’s Nolan Ryan on April 22, 1988, a feat you can see on the highlight video below.) He was one of the few non-Astros players that I followed. As a kid, I just thought he was so fun to watch, and he seemed like a nice guy.

As many answers as there were yesterday to the question, “How fast was Cool Papa Bell?” there may be even more answers to “How good of hitter was Tony Gwynn?”

Gwynn hit .309 or better every full season of his career. He hit .351 in his first full season and hit .338 in his last. He won eight batting titles, tied for the most in NL history. In his two World Series, he hit .371.

Gwynn struck out just 434 times in his career. In 323 at-bats against Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux — you know, the greatest pitchers of their generation — Gwynn struck out a total of three times. Nolan Ryan was one of the most successful in shutting Gwynn down, striking him out nine times in 67 appearances, and Gwynn still hit .300 against Ryan.

From 1983-2001, 19 straight seasons, Gwynn walked more than he struck out.

Gwynn left the game in 2001 with 3,141 hits. He had over 200 hits in a season five times, and had 220 – his single-season high – in 1997, his sixteenth season. When, in 1999, he reached the 3,000-hit plateau, he was the 21st player to do so and the first NL player in 20 years.

These are staggering statistics.

You may have noticed, however, that there aren’t HRs among them. Gwynn never hit more than 17 homers in a year, which today would seem to put him out of contention for the descriptor “great.” But baseball is more home-run-heavy than it’s ever been, and it’s moved away from the kind of player that Gwynn epitomized. Jay Caspian King makes an interesting distinction: Gwynn should be considered the best baseball player ever at “getting hits” — that is, hits of any kind, in any situation, which does not necessarily make him the greatest hitter of all time. (Call me a traitor to my generation’s baseball, but Gwynn is my kind of player: Give me small ball any day. Home runs are unconsidered spectacle.)

“Even as the game began to shift towards power during the 1990s, Gwynn exemplified a different type of hitter — one whose value came from putting the ball in play and using the whole field, rather than working the count and mashing for power,” Neil Paine writes, offering Jose Altuve as an example of a current player in that mold. (That same article also features Alex Bregman waxing arrogant about the fall in importance of batting average and the rise in importance of OPS and WAR. Sigh. He’s probably not wrong. He’s just an asshole.)

Gwynn was able to do all of this because he was essentially a hitting genius. The stories about his hitting knowledge are as legendary as the hitting itself. He obsessively looked at footage of his at-bats, at a time when that was far from commonplace, leading to his teammates to lovingly dub him “Mr. Video.” And he was thrilled to share his knowledge with anyone who asked: Bob Nightengale recalled, “Really, you almost feel guilty at times when you talked to Gwynn, feeling you should share your paycheck with him. You wanted a story, you plopped down your chair in front of his locker, and he’d write it for you.”

For me, it’s this generosity with everyone around him (teammates, reporters, fans, etc.) and this conviction that he could always do better — while still being the best — that makes Gwynn the perfect embodiment of hod she’b’tiferet, “beauty than manifests through humility.” Let’s count day 19 in honor of a legend who died way too soon.

featured image: AP


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