Still, this is what I cherished most about Gwynn: He never was less than brilliant and pleasant during any of our conversations that began in 1982 after his Major League debut. We discussed everything, but if the subject involved baseball in general or hitting in particular, oh, blessed mother of Ruth, Mantle and Mays. It was nirvana covered with Cracker Jack.
Now Gwynn is gone at 54 due to oral cancer, but the conversations live, along with other memories of Mr. Padre. For instance, long before the relatively young marriage between sports and electronics, Gwynn caused eyes to roll by taking his own video equipment with him on road trips. He spent the night before games reaching into his video archives for a tape of the upcoming starting pitcher, and then he mapped out his strategy, and then he perfected the whole thing the next day during batting practice. Afterward, Gwynn dissected every millisecond of the game on video in his hotel room or on the plane.
Once, against the Braves, Gwynn expected a fastball from Smoltz on the inside part of the plate, and Smoltz obliged. Home run. "But," Gwynn told me later after shaking his head, "when I saw the video of the game, I noticed that [Braves catcher Greg] Olson was calling for a fastball outside. I got lucky."
That was so Gwynn, an offensive perfectionist, not only in the spotlight, where observers rubbed their eyes at the final results, but also in the shadows, where he did the bulk of his work. The same was true of his defense. In fact, Gwynn was as obsessed with his fielding as he was his hitting, and he had five Gold Gloves to prove it. He was among the first to arrive at the ballpark to have somebody hit or throw balls against parts of the outfield wall to judge the caroms. He also checked the length and the quality of the grass in different spots to anticipate how quickly hits would reach his vicinity.
The man never stopped thinking.
"The only time I was in awe of playing this game was during my first week in the Majors," Gwynn told me a few years ago. "With Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, guys like that pitching, I thought this was the top of the line. I expected things to be a lot different for me as a hitter. But after I got some hits off those guys, I said to myself, 'Wow, Tony. This is exactly the same.'"
Gwynn was into "the same," by the way. Throughout his career, he had the same batting stance -- the one he used in Little League while growing up in Long Beach, Calif. He also gave you the impression he was using his same Little League bat since his one with the Padres of 32 1/2 inches and 31 ounces was tiny by Major League standards. That's because his objective at the plate was to have the same swing and the same mechanics no matter what, and I'm guessing it worked since he terrorized even future Hall of Fame pitchers.
Years ago, Greg Maddux told me during his prime that Gwynn was frustrating to face because, "He has such great concentration. It gives him the ability to make adjustments. As a result, his holes [in his swing] change from pitch to pitch and from at-bat to at-bat. I've never seen him just give away an at-bat."
Neither did I, and I saw Gwynn often, despite not working in San Diego. I was there in Boston that splendid July night near the end of his career at the 1999 All-Star Game, where he helped immortalize the event by leading his peers in hugs for Ted Williams around the pitcher's mound at Fenway Park. I also was there near the beginning of Gwynn's career in Cincinnati in September 1985, when Rose broke Ty Cobb's all-time hits record against the Padres. I wrote a column after the game saying the likely person to break Rose's record would be this affable San Diego outfielder who just turned 25 and who owned the same penchant for dissecting hitting as the man of the moment.
Gwynn never topped Rose in career hits, but he did just about everything else you can do with a bat. All of the above should put the following into perspective: Soon after I heard the news Monday that Gwynn finally had lost his nearly four-year battle with something much tougher than a nasty slider, my frown evolved into a smile. I couldn't help it. I kept remembering just about every time I was in Gwynn's presence, and during each of those times, he gave me the impression he invented joy. He always was a story away from his high-pitched laugh that came with the greatest of ease. If you combine that with his considerable baseball wisdom, he never was less than interesting.
Not even close.
There was that time in 1998, when I walked into the visiting clubhouse at Turner Field in Atlanta, and Gwynn was across the way autographing three or four bats at his locker. "Suddenly, this has been happening no matter where we've gone this season," said Gwynn, chuckling, adding that he carried extra bats on road trips to satisfy the requests of visiting players everywhere. "I don't mind signing bats or balls for guys, but in the past, guys would do the asking for themselves, not through the clubhouse folks. There's a big change in the game. Guys don't talk to [veterans] as much as they used to. I don't know if guys now feel that it isn't proper to pick the brain of somebody such as myself or what."
I can't speak for those ballplayers, but I can for myself. When it came to Gwynn, I picked away at everything I could find inside of his wonderful mind regarding baseball, and I'll hug those memories forever.
RIP, dear sir.