BOSTON – Only 18 men in baseball history own more hits than Tony Gwynn. One of them was in the Twins clubhouse Monday, mourning his old friend.
“It’s a tough day,” said Twins coach Paul Molitor, who was enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2004, three years before Gwynn. “He was a very humble guy. Obviously very talented, but in times like this, you think more about the man than [his] ability. He was a gracious guy who gave back to his community throughout his career, and seemed to keep great balance in his life.”
Being in different leagues, Molitor never played against Gwynn, who died of cancer Monday at the age of 54, except in All-Star Games and during spring training. But Molitor used to spend several months each winter in San Diego, where he befriended a hitter as accomplished as himself. He and Gwynn played golf, shot hoops and talked baseball.
“I picked his brain a few times,” Molitor said of the eight-time batting champion, whose 3,141 career hits were 178 shy of his own. “I used to like to get out there and watch guys take batting practice,” and Gwynn was one of his favorites.
“You play third base and Tony Gwynn’s at bat, you move to the 5-hole and he hits it down the line. You move to the line and he hits it 5-hole. I know it wasn’t easy, but sometimes he made it look easy,” Molitor said. “He had a little bit of power, but mostly he just knew how to get the barrel on the ball. A great athlete.”
Joe Mauer, a lefthanded-hitting, line-drive hitter himself, owns three batting titles, and said it’s a little staggering to consider the sheer size of Gwynn’s legacy. “You admire guys like that — from line to line, he could put the bat on the ball anywhere,” Mauer said. “He was a tough out, one of the greatest hitters to play the game.”
When the Twins were in San Diego last month, Molitor visited with John Boggs, who in addition to being Gwynn’s agent “is probably one of my best friends.” Boggs told him that cancer was ravaging their mutual friend. “Just suffering a lot, so there’s kind of some peace” in that coming to an end, Molitor said. “But it’s been a tough chapter the last several months for Tony. Obviously, I’m praying for his family and all the people who love him out there in California.”
One man’s rust …
Stephen Drew entered Monday’s game with just three hits in 18 at-bats (.167) for the Red Sox since signing as a midseason free agent late last month. That’s the shake-the-rust experience the Twins expected when they signed Kendrys Morales 10 days ago. Instead, they have received a hitting performance that is ... well, how would you describe it, Kendrys?
“It’s incredible,” Morales said. “Yes, I’m surprised, because six months is too long not to play baseball.”
That’s what the Twins thought, too. Manager Ron Gardenhire didn’t expect Morales to fit into the middle of the lineup right away, but the Cuban slugger talked him into it after sitting on the bench his first day. The next day? He started lining the ball all over the field.
“It’s amazing. I know he’s a veteran, I know he’s been there and done it,” Gardenhire said. “But when you sit out a long time, it’s not that easy. And he’s sure made it look easy.”
Without the benefit of winter ball, spring training, or any major league pitching since last September, Morales collected a hit in each of his first six games before going hitless Monday, leaving his average at .310.
“I’ve played seven years [in the majors] — this is the best start I’ve had, the best I’ve felt,” Morales said. “Right now, my timing is pretty good. I’m making good contact.”
Even so, Morales believes he’ll become a better hitter as the season goes on. “It’s probably two months until [I] feel like normal year,” he said. “I go up, up, up, I hope.”
Almost time for Nunez
Eduardo Nunez has a big day planned Tuesday, the last game he will miss, he hopes, with a strained right hamstring.
After another day of treatment Monday — massage, stretching, and “the machine,” as he calls it, a device that stimulates the tissue — he pronounced himself nearly healed from the injury he suffered while beating out an infield hit Saturday in Detroit.
“I feel better today. A little tight, just a little, but getting better,” Nunez said. “Tomorrow, I’ll run outside, run some stairs, run the bases.”
His planned return? “I hope I can play the last day here [Wednesday],” he said.