(Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on NBCSports.com on June 16, 2014.)
When I was very young, we went to the Cleveland Museum of Art. There, I saw a woman standing in front of a painting, and she was actually crying. I don’t recall it being a sad painting. My mother leaned down to me and whispered, “See, the painting is so beautiful, it breaks her heart and makes her cry.”
This made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever.
But then, I had not yet seen Tony Gwynn hit a baseball.
Baseball, more than any sport, is a game of numbers and so a baseball life can be told with numbers. Tony Gwynn had more than his share of those.
There was .338 — the lifetime batting average.
There was 3,141 — the number of hits he cracked and blooped and sliced and grounded.
There was .394 — his batting average in the 1994 strike year, the closest to .400 anyone has climbed since his hero Ted Williams hit the mark in 1941.
There were eight batting titles, 15 All-Star games, five gold gloves. The number 15 comes up again — that was the number of times he struck out in 1995. The whole year. Ryan Howard has struck out more than that since June 3. The Upton Brothers, Justin and B.J., combined have struck out more than that in the last week.
Another number -– 97.6%. That’s the percentage of the Baseball Hall of Fame vote Tony Gwynn received his first year on the ballot. However you may feel about it, that’s a higher percentage than Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Bob Gibson received in the Hall of Fame balloting. This makes some people cringe; Gwynn was a great baseball player but he certainly was not in the rarefied stratosphere of Mays or Mantle. Gwynn himself would never claim to be in their air space.
Then, this is where the power of numbers begins to fade out and the mystery of art and wonder begins. Tony Gwynn was an artist. That is a word we sportswriters throw around like confetti — this goalie is an artist, that point guard is an artist, that running back is an artist. In this case, though, I feel sure the word fits. Art defines as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination.”
Sure. Tony Gwynn was an artist.
See, for most Major League hitters -– even the best of hitters -– hitting is some brew of instinct and technique and muscle memory and something unspoken. It’s a physical act and it’s a mental act, but it isn’t generally an application of imagination. The cliché is irrepressible, you’ve heard it a million times: Nothing in sports is as difficult as hitting a baseball. The greatest hitters have reduced the difficulty to platitudes because, well, you don’t talk about batting. You DO it.
“See the ball, hit the ball,” Tony Perez used to say.
“Empty your mind,” George Brett used to say.
“You can’t think and hit at the same time,” Yogi Berra used to say.
Gwynn did, though He thought and hit at the same time. He would not empty his mind. He did not only see the ball (and hit it), he would see the pitcher’s preparation, see the smallest hitch or twist in his delivery, see the openings in the defense, see the ball release from the pitcher’s hand, see the way the baseball turned, see angles and lines and geometric shapes like parabolas. I once asked him how closely he noticed the defensive alignment. “If the second baseman was one inch more to the left or right,” he told me, “I knew.”
You simply could not overload that beautiful mind of his. Long before others began studying video –- and long before others even knew what good could be gained from watching all that stuff — Gwynn would sit mesmerized in front of a television screen and look for the tiniest details. They called him “Captain Video.”
He kept notes on everything. He contemplated the smallest details. Heck, he NOTICED things no one else noticed. One teammate told the story of striking out and then passing Gwynn, who had been in the on-deck circle. “Was that ball a little warped?” Gwynn asked. The teammate shrugged and said he had not noticed. Gwynn fouled the first pitch into the stands, just to be sure.
I tried not to guess.
I did not anticipate.
I trusted my eyes.
– Tony Gwynn on hitting (a Haiku)
And to watch him hit … this was one of the singular joys of my life as a baseball fan. It is fun to talk about Gwynn’s value, his production, his advanced numbers (WAR and OPS+). But it was transcendent just watching him hit, watching him devise a way to slip the baseball through. He recognized himself as a young man, understood that he would not hit for power. His future would depend on how well and how often he could hit baseballs between defenders.
And this is a bold task -– when Tony Gwynn came to the plate, he was taking on nine players, not one. He would think about what kind of pitch he wanted and then work the count until he got it. When the second baseman was cheating a little bit toward second base, Gwynn could turn on it and ground it on through into right field. When the infield was in, he could flip the ball over their heads like a tennis lob. When an outfielder played too deep, he could hit a half pop-up that would drop in front of him. When an outfielder challenged him by playing shallow, Gwynn could crank the baseball out toward the wall.
“I never tried to hit the ball to certain parts of the park,” he told me.
“No. I hit the ball where it was pitched.”
“Well, wait a minute, you just said you tried to find openings in the defense.”
“Well, isn’t that trying to hit the ball to certain parts of the park?”
“No. I just waited for the pitch that allowed me to hit the ball where I wanted to hit it.”
An artist. He was James Bond dodging bullets. He was Meryl Streep disappearing into a part. He was Ricky Jay making your card disappear and then making it reappear again. How could he keep finding holes in the defense? How could he keep finding patches of green to land baseballs? When Gwynn was 26 years old and a vibrant athlete who stole 37 bases, he hit .329. When Gwynn was 41 years old and barely healthy enough to get on the field, he hit .324.
He was such a beautiful hitter he could just about make you cry.
Gwynn was also a wonderful man, full of generosity and spirit. Before the 2012 All-Star Game, I did an event with him called “The Art of Hitting.” He already knew by then that he had cancer of the salivary gland –- he believed it was due to the years he spent dipping tobacco. He suffered privately, but he refused to stop living. In the years after he stopped playing, he coached at San Diego State, and he talked baseball on television, and he talked hitting with anyone who was interested. I remember Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp showed up for “The Art of Hitting” talk. Kemp said he never thought twice about it.
“Man,” he said, “if Tony Gwynn is talking hitting, I’m there.”
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So right. Gwynn did talk hitting, talked about his approach, talked about how to avoid strikeouts, talked about what was happening in his head when he stood in the box. And then I asked him the question I often think about. I asked him if he thought that he would have hit .400 in 1994. There were 50 or so games left in the ’94 season when the strike ended it, and Gwynn was hitting .394. I think he could have hit .400. I think if he had played in a great hitters ballpark like Fenway or Coors, he absolutely would have hit .400, probably more than once.
Anyway, I asked him: “Tony, do you think you would have hit .400 in 1994?”
“Of course,” he said without hesitation for a second.
“Really?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said again. “Why would I think anything else?”
He smiled that big smile of his, the very first image that popped into my head when I saw the news Monday that he had died of cancer. The second image was a series of images, a series of hits, all kinds, pulled grounders, opposite-field line drives, hard shots up the middle, high choppers over the third baseman’s head.
There is a part of great art that is ineffable, something that reaches deeper inside to that place that is without words. What was it that made Tony Gwynn an artist at the plate? There was his physical talent. There was his remarkable hand-eye coordination. There was his hitting approach. There was his relentless preparation. But there was something else, something that made Tony Gwynn a great hitter sure, but also as so many have said, a better person. There’s no word for it. Hope might be the closest thing.