JAY DAVIS: Baseball loses one of its all-time greatest hitters

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Baseball lost one of the greatest players ever to play the game when Tony Gwynn died of cancer on Monday.

For those of you too young to have seen Gwynn hit a baseball, I feel bad. You missed watching a man who was a genius with a bat in his hands. For nearly every player who takes up the game, a bat is a tool. It is a club wielded with the hope of hitting a round object with a round object and hope to hit it squarely.

But Tony Gwynn wielded a wand. He was a master craftsman; better yet, a poet with an ash bat for a pen.

The Hall of Famer played for 20 years, all with the San Diego Padres, hence the nickname, Mr. Padre. He was also called Captain Video, because he transformed the art of hitting with his study of game tape.

He went into the Hall of Fame in 2007 with an amazing 97.61-percent of the vote. Of all the numbers he put up, .338 batting average, .399 on-base percentage, 1,338 RBIs, 319 stolen bases, five seasons with more than 200 hits, the most impressive stat of all might be that for his career he hit .444 with bases loaded.

If pitchers threw him away, the lefty could slap the ball to left field better than anyone in history. If he was pitched inside he could do a lot of damage pulling the ball. He hit 135 home runs, 543 doubles and 85 triples.

During his prime, there were entire organizations that decided the best thing to do was throw strikes right down the middle. That way, he at least had to hit the ball to center field and the gaps, and maybe they could hold him to singles.

Gwynn was a remarkable athlete. He played basketball at San Diego State and was drafted by the NBA. With that kind of athleticism and the pride he took in defense, he was a five-time Gold Glove winner.

Maybe this description by Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux can explain the magician with a bat that was Tony Gwynn.

Maddux was convinced that changing speeds was the key to pitching success. He was convinced hitters could not tell the speed of a pitch with meaningful accuracy. To demonstrate, he pointed at a road a quarter-mile away and said it was impossible to tell if a car was going 55, 65 or 75 mph unless there was another car nearby to offer a point of reference.

“You just can’t do it,” said Maddux, adding that sometimes hitters can pick up differences in spin. They can identify pitches if there are different release points or if a curveball starts with an upward hump as it leaves the pitcher’s hand. But if a pitcher can change speeds, every hitter is helpless, limited by human vision.

“Except,” said Maddux, “for that [expletive] Tony Gwynn.”

Look him up, youngsters. His highlights are all over sites like YouTube. You cannot find a better hitter to emulate.

 

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