Gwynn Ready to Say Goodbye
Come Sunday afternoon, Tony Gwynn will walk to home plate and settle into the batter’s box they way he’s done more than 10,000 times before.
The ovation from more than 60,000 fans will be deafening. They’ll be watching that sweet left-handed swing one last time. And then the greatest, longest-running chapter in San Diego sports history will be over.
Gwynn is retiring after 20 big league seasons, eight NL batting titles, two World Series appearances, 3,140 hits, a .338 lifetime average, numerous injuries and thousands of memories. Every moment was spent with the Padres.
His numbers are stellar enough for first-ballot election to the Hall of Fame. His knees are so shot that all he can do is pinch-hit. And he’s got his dream job lined up, becoming baseball coach at his alma mater, San Diego State, following the Aztecs’ 2002 season.
Gwynn thinks he’ll be OK emotionally on his final day. It might be a little tougher for the fans and the Padres themselves. They’ll no longer get to see No. 19, who quite simply has been the most consistent hitter since Ted Williams.
The clubhouse will be different. The dugout, where Gwynn’s laughter can be heard hours before game time, will seem empty.
But it’s time, and Gwynn’s fine with that.
“I love what I’m doing,” the 41-year-old said. “I mean, I’ve loved this for 20 years, and I’ve got to let it go.
“Other people are going to be affected by me retiring more than I am, because lots of people have grown up watching me playing baseball, and now they’re not going to see me play baseball anymore,” he said. “They’re going to see me coaching.”
Manager Bruce Bochy will decide when to send Gwynn to the plate Sunday against Colorado. Gwynn might feel emotional then, but he’ll also be trying to get a hit.
“It probably won’t come to me until like the sixth inning on Sunday, and by then Boch is ready to send me up there in the shadows against some hard-throwing left-hander and you’ve got to put all that aside and concentrate on doing the job,” he said.
After that, Gwynn will be gone. But he won’t be far away, just up the hill at San Diego State, where he was a baseball and basketball star from 1977-81. Starting Monday, he’ll begin working as a volunteer assistant to baseball coach Jim Dietz.
Becoming Dietz’s successor will make for a smooth transition.
“I think it’ll be easy to get over a lot of this stuff, the aggravation you feel because you aren’t doing it anymore,” Gwynn said. “When their spring training starts, San Diego State will already have started. I’ll be through all of that by then.”
Gwynn will be honored at an elaborate postgame ceremony Sunday.
Topping the list of his career highlights are his two-run homer off the upper-deck facade at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the 1998 World Series and his 3,000th hit at Montreal on Aug. 6, 1999.
Gwynn’s first hit was a double in his debut on July 19, 1982, against Philadelphia. Pete Rose told him: “Don’t catch me all in one night, kid.” In 1993, he had a six-hit game against San Francisco.
Bochy also was a teammate of Gwynn’s, and remembers thinking this early in his career: “He’s much better than the rest of us. There’s something special there.”
Gwynn became the best pure hitter of his generation. He rarely struck out, and he hit so many balls the other way, between third base and shortstop, that he nicknamed it the “5.5 hole.”
Los Angeles Dodgers bench coach Jim Riggleman, who managed the Padres from late 1992 through 1994, thinks Gwynn would have hit .400 if not for the strike that halted the ’94 season. Gwynn finished at .394, the highest average since Williams hit .406 in 1941.
There was something else.
“Honestly, I never saw Tony make a mistake on the baseball field,” Riggleman said. “His instincts on the bases were tremendous. Just fundamentally, he was a perfect player.”
Bochy was San Diego’s third base coach in 1993-94, when a salary purge left few recognizable players. Gwynn never chased the big free agent money despite some pretty lean seasons, choosing to remain in San Diego because he and his family were comfortable.
“Tony pretty much kept the credibility for this franchise because he was still here and fans still had somebody to come out and see and support,” Bochy said. “He’s done so much for this organization.”
Dodgers right-hander Andy Ashby, a teammate of Gwynn’s for 6 1/2 seasons, recalls watching Gwynn studying video of opposing pitchers and working endlessly in the batting cage.
“It looked right to everyone else but it wasn’t right to him,” Ashby said. “I mean, it was awesome. It was great to watch him just get ready.”
As Gwynn’s teammate in 1992, Gary Sheffield won the NL batting title with a .330 average.
“That’s one of those things where you’re just trying to follow the leader,” Sheffield said. “He was hitting in front of me and I just tried to do what he did.”
Gwynn won his first batting title in 1984, but doesn’t think he really began to get noticed until 1994. He scored the winning run in the All-Star Game at Pittsburgh that year, then made the last serious run at .400.
He simply wants to be remembered for being a pretty good hitter who worked hard.
“My style of hitting isn’t flamboyant, it isn’t glamorous, it’s just day-to-day, grind-it-out, and it takes a while before people start to take notice, but they do take notice,” he said.
“I was a good hitter with two good legs, I was a good hitter with one good leg, I was a good hitter with no legs, and I made it work,” he said.