Major League Baseball’s most senior umpire was on the phone, just about to head to the ballpark in Cleveland. Joe West was set to call balls and strikes behind the plate, his vantage point many a night over two decades when one of the greatest players in the history of the game came to bat.
“Tony Gwynn was the best hitter of his time,” West said Monday. “You throw it on the outside corner and he’d slap it to left. But try to jam a fastball past him, and he’d pull it over the wall. He could hit for average and hit with power.”
This from the man in the mask whose frame of reference dates to his big league debut in 1976 — the era of Rose, Morgan, Parker, Carew. Gwynn himself embarked on a 20-year career starting in 1982, and throughout the passing seasons, Mr. Padre and Cowboy Joe practiced their professions in close proximity.
Gwynn’s passing touched West deeply.
“He was not only a Hall of Fame player — I have seen many of those — he was a Hall of Fame person,” West said. “He was really, really good to everyone.”
“I knew, everyone knew, his work ethic was off the charts. Tony arrived at the ballpark early. He was hitting off the tee before everyone else. He was looking at tape. And he studied umpires.”
Gwynn combined his in-game interaction with umps with hours of video work, typically starting at midday, well in advance of a night game. When he stepped into the left-hand batter’s box, Gwynn held a precise knowledge of that evening’s strike zone.
“Before the two leagues merged crews (in 2000), I was in the National League,” West remembers. “When I first came up, every night the strike zone might be different. A great umpire, Dutch Rennert’s zone was about the size of a postage stamp. Lee Weyer, another legend, loved it wide. He had a zone that stretched from dugout to dugout.
“This was long before we had the technology and machines of today that frame the zone and say if we’re right or wrong.
“And Gwynn knew what the umpire was going to call. Tony knew what was what.”
Joe West says Tony Gwynn scouted not only pitchers but umpires as well.
Take a look at the what-was-what. Not only did he slap, rap and blast 3,141 hits, Gwynn also walked 790 times — both Padres records, and cornerstone stats for his remarkable eight NL batting titles and 15 All-Star selections.
“Now he’s on base 4,000 times,” marveled Joe.
Now, they did have their disagreements. In fact, the first time Tony Gwynn was ejected in his career, it was by West, in his 781st game — his seventh season. April 17, 1988, to be precise, against the San Francisco Giants in Jack Murphy Stadium. Over a pitch ruled a strike.
It happened to Gwynn only once more to Gwynn in 2,440 games — 10,202 at-bats — in the bigs.
“I’d rather not get into it,” West said. “There was other stuff going on. Tony Gwynn was quite a gentleman.”
Such is a Hall of Fame legacy that produced a .338 career batting average. Gwynn, over 20 seasons, never hit lower than .289. And West drew an immediate comparison to a star of similar peerage, and nearly identical numbers.
“George Brett was a lot like Tony,” West said. “Both kept the bat in the hitting zone so long. And both could pull the ball out of the park.”
A check of the stats found Brett, in his 21-year run as one of the American League’s dominant hitters, collecting 3,154 base knocks — just 13 more than Gwynn.
“I remember Dick Williams, managing the Padres,” West said. “He’d bat Tony second — say behind a speedster like Alan Wiggins, who’d lead off and reach first. Right away, Dick’s playing hit and run, and there’s Tony making contact and right out of the box they’ve either scored or have runners at the corners. It was something to see.”
Not that Gwynn was strictly an offensive force. Five Gold Gloves attest to defensive capacity in right field, despite the fact that he was not the prototypical slim-and-trim outfielder.
“He was always fighting a weight problem,” said West, a big man in his own right.
“I used to tell him, ‘Stand next to me so I’ll look svelte.'”
“You look at Tony, with that round build, and folks wouldn’t realize how athletic he was. He always wanted to play in the NBA,” West said. “He was a point guard. Just needed to be a bit taller, I guess.”
This from an ol’ drop-back quarterback in his playing days at Elon College, extending his own legacy into a fifth decade in the majors.