It’s hard not to smile when remembering Tony Gwynn

Shortly after learning of Tony Gwynn’s passing, former major leaguer Michael Young sent me a text message:

“Ted Williams gets to talk hitting again,” Young said.

Gwynn was one of the hitters that Williams most respected, one of the few who could speak to Teddy Ballgame at his level, even though they were completely different.

With Gwynn, who died Monday at 54, it’s almost impossible to know where to begin. He was one of the best hitters many of us ever saw. The amazing part, he was an even better guy.

I could rattle off one Gwynn statistic after another – the eight batting titles, the .338 lifetime batting average, the fact that he never struck out more than 40 times in a season.

REMEMBERING TONY GWYNN

And yet, what I will remember most about Gwynn is not his ability to shoot balls through the 5-6 hole like a metronome, but the joy in his disposition, the warmth of his smile.

He was a dream for reporters, always accessible, always accountable (not that he needed to account for much other than getting, say, two hits in a game instead of three).

In fact, he was such a dream for us that other superstars, even gracious ones, suffered by comparison. Didn’t matter if you were from a tiny paper or a large one, Gwynn treated you with respect and kindness. Best of all, he could fill a notebook like no other, radiating his love for the game, offering rare insight.

He won the 1999 Roberto Clemente Award for his community work. He repeatedly chose to stay in San Diego when he could have become a free agent and made millions more in a larger market. He was one of those rare people who you were always happy to see, in part because he was always happy to see you.

And with a bat in his hands, my goodness.

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Former major-league pitcher Joe Magrane put it best on MLB Network, saying Gwynn was a virtuoso and that his bat was his Stradivarius.

Magrane, who actually held Gwynn to a .289 career average in their 38 left-on-left confrontations, said he once tried to get inside Gwynn’s head by asking him if he ever hit the ball right at someone.

“No,” Gwynn said, laughing. “Never!”

Al Leiter, another former major-league lefty, said that the idea of consulting scouting reports in an effort to combat Gwynn was “almost comical,” a complete waste of time.

Gwynn was 10-for-22 against Leiter with four extra-base hits, a cool .455 batting average and .727 slugging percentage. The problem with facing Gwynn, Leiter said, was that he had such tremendous balance and plate coverage, “he was never fooled.”

Part of that stemmed from Gwynn’s preparation — he was perhaps the first player to make extensive use of video, a practice that is commonplace today. Indeed, his page at baseball-reference.com lists two nicknames, “Mr Padre” and “Captain Video.”

People forget — Gwynn played basketball at San Diego State before turning full-time to baseball. He had to work to become a better baserunner and defender, and he did, finishing with 319 career stolen bases, including a career-high 56 in 1987, and five Gold Gloves.

Gwynn, especially in his early years, was a complete player. But of course, his hitting defined him. Wouldn’t you have loved to see teams try to shift against him the way they do against so many left-handed hitters today? Actually, they wouldn’t have bothered, knowing they would have been putty in Gwynn’s estimable hands.

Come to think of it, the approach of many hitters today is so poor that Gwynn seems like even more of an anomaly. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs said in a tweet that Ichiro is “probably the closest thing we had to Tony Gwynn 2.0” — and that Ichiro struck out twice as often.

In 1995, Gwynn struck out 15 times in 577 plate appearances. Josh Donaldson, one of the better players in the game today, has struck out 15 times in his past 14 games.

Gwynn was the best — the best hitter, the best person, the best everything. I hear his laughter as I write this, his unmistakable, high-pitched voice. And sad as this day is, I can’t help but smile.

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