Tony Gwynn’s death Monday stirs plenty of emotions: anger over the relentless nature of cancer, which took his life and in this case was highly preventable given Gwynn’s assumption that chewing tobacco was at its root cause.
Sadness for his family — his son, Phillies outfielder Tony Jr., went to Twitter on Monday with a heartfelt message for his dad that had to be particularly difficult to compose so soon after Father’s Day.
A certain amount of fragility, since Gwynn was a rookie with the Padres around the time I started caring about baseball as a young boy and he was certainly one of the brightest stars of that generation of players.
But instead of dwelling too far on those things, let’s take a look instead at that magnificent career and a celebration of everything Gwynn was able to accomplish on the field:
• Above the batting average and all the other accomplishments, Gwynn’s ability to make contact will always be the thing that seems most amazing to me. Between 1991 and ’99, Gwynn had at least 446 plate appearances every season. He had more than 500 in all but three. And in eight of those nine seasons, his season strikeout total was somewhere in the teens. Yes, it was between 14 and 19. That’s a normal two-week stretch for some hitters. That was a season for Gwynn, who struck out only 434 times in more than 10,000 career plate appearances.
• OK, but the batting average is a close second. Gwynn hit .338 for his career. More than one out of every three official at bats resulted in a hit. He hit .289 in 190 at bats his rookie season in 1982. Every season thereafter, he hit at least .309. The crowning achievement in that run was 1994, a strike-shortened season in which Gwynn hit .394 in 475 plate appearances. He was hitting .475 for the month of August when baseball shut down. Hitting .400 would have been a stretch, but it would have been nice to see if he could’ve done it.
• As noted, he never hit below .309 after his rookie year. That means Gwynn was hitting right until the end. Most players fade away, but even in a much-reduced role his final two seasons, he hit .323 over 229 at-bats.
• Would Gwynn be thought of less in this era, where batting average seems less significant than driving the ball and getting on base? (If you don’t believe that, ask Joe Mauer.) Well, Gwynn did amass 763 extra-base hits in his career. His .847 career OPS (on base plus slugging) was better than that of Reggie Jackson, Carl Yastrzemski and, yes, Kirby Puckett.