Remembering Padres Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, the 5.5 guy
There are two numbers we will remember in association with Tony Gwynn. One is 19, of course, the uniform number he wore with distinction as the right fielder for the San Diego Padres.
The other is 5.5, a reference to the hole between third base and shortstop. Gwynn was so proficient at hitting a single through that hole that, on the final weekend of his career, the Padres stenciled 19 in right field and 5.5 on the dirt between third base and shortstop.
Gwynn died Monday, at 54. It would have been fascinating to watch him at bat today, in this new era of rampant defensive shifting. Opposing teams would have plugged the 5.5 hole, but Gwynn assuredly would have found another.
He was a magician with the bat. He won eight batting championships, tied with Honus Wagner for the National League record. He hit .289 as a rookie, then .300 or better for the remaining 19 seasons of his career -- including .394 in 1994, when a strike ended the season in August.
He did not walk much, but he walked more than he struck out, in every season but his rookie one. In 1995, he had 535 at-bats and struck out 15 times. In contrast -- and as an example of how the strikeout has lost its stigma -- Adam Dunn of the Chicago White Sox has struck out 15 times in his past eight games.
In 107 career at-bats against Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, Gwynn hit .415 -- and never struck out.
For all his wizardry at bat, Gwynn should be better remembered for his infectious laughter, and his loyalty to San Diego.
He wanted to play his entire career in San Diego, so he disdained free agency and took less money to stay in one of the smallest markets in the major leagues, long before the kind of revenue sharing that enabled the Cincinnati Reds to keep Joey Votto and the Minnesota Twins to lock up Joe Mauer.
“I invented the San Diego discount,” he told The Times in 2010. He laughed, of course, as he said it.
He stayed in San Diego even after he retired, as coach of the San Diego State baseball team. He had starred at San Diego State as a player -- in baseball, yes, but also in basketball, where he still holds the career record for assists. On June 10, 1981, Gwynn was taken in the third round of the baseball draft by the Padres and the 10th round of the NBA draft by the San Diego Clippers.
In 2001, during Gwynn’s retirement weekend from the Padres, Barry Bonds joked that he might have to join Gwynn’s staff at San Diego State.
“I’ll show ‘em how to play against a Punch-and-Judy hitter like you,” Bonds said with a grin.
Gwynn laughed, then launched into a mock diatribe against how opposing coaches would scare off potential San Diego State recruits by warning that Gwynn would transform them from sluggers into singles hitters.
The Aztecs play at Tony Gwynn Stadium. The Padres play at Petco Park, at 19 Tony Gwynn Drive, where a bronze statue of Gwynn stands beyond the outfield, in Tony Gwynn Plaza.
In 2007, when one-team icons Gwynn and Cal Ripken were inducted into the Hall of Fame, the ceremonies drew a record crowd estimated at 75,000.
In a statement, Commissioner Bud Selig called Gwynn “the greatest Padre ever and one of the most accomplished hitters that our game has ever known, whose all-around excellence on the field was surpassed by his exuberant personality and genial disposition in life.”
Gwynn’s only son, Tony Jr., formerly played for the Padres and Dodgers. He currently is an outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies and said this via Twitter: “Today I lost my Dad, my best friend and my mentor. I’m gonna miss u so much pops. I’m gonna do everything in my power to continue to make U proud!”
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