MLB Hit Machine Tony Gwynn Succumbs To Cancer at Age 54

When discussing the greatest pure hitters of the latter part of the 20th century, former San Diego Padres legend Tony Gwynn is possibly at the top of that list.

The Hall of Fame outfielder and eight-time National League batting champ had been battling salivary gland cancer since 2009 and died on Monday at the age of 54 at Pomerado Hospital in Poway, Calif., in the presence of his family.

While Gwynn was notorious for frustrating, finessing and outlasting pitchers, his battle with cancer threw him several curves that he just couldn’t lick.

In '09 a malignant tumor was removed from his right cheek. Gwynn claims his long-time habit of chewing tobacco, something that was very popular in baseball during the 70s and 80s caused the cancer. The cancer returned twice and in 2012 he underwent radiation to shrink the tumor. Gwynn, who was on medical leave from his job as HC of San Diego State’s baseball team, had just signed a one-year contract extension on Wednesday.

He’ll never get to drop hitting jewels on his Aztecs players again.

That's a rough blow to any baseball fan growing up in the '80s and '90s. Tony Gwynn was that dude when it came to mastering the art of hitter-pitcher tactical warfare.

He not only possessed a mind that stored information like a computer, his meticulous and scientific approach to batting helped him secure a .338 lifetime batting average over 20 MLB seasons – all with the Padres. He also had 3,141 hits and was inducted into Cooperstown in 2007 along with Orioles Ironman, Cal Ripken.

To put Gwynn’s lofty accomplishments into perspective, his career batting average is the highest since 1960 when "The King of Swing" himself -Ted Williams – retired from the Boston Red Sox with a .344 lifetime average. When asked his opinion of Gwynn, Williams once said, "Tony Gwynn is a Houdini up their."

Gwynn never slugged more than 17 homeruns, so you won't hear his name celebrated like the prolific power dudes, but he was the toughest out in the game for most of his career. MLB batting averages aren’t held in the same esteem as they once were. The game has changed and many players concede average to generate more power, which “experts” say makes the game more exciting and generates more dollars.

Still, I’ll never forget the strike-shortened baseball season of 1994, which robbed the baseball community of so many potential broken records and milestones.

Gwynn was flirting with the impossible, as he finished the season hitting .394 in just 110 games and 419 at bats. Had the strike never occurred, maybe he would have maintained a blazing bat, pushed his average to .400, and became the first MLB player to eclipse the mark since Williams in 1941. It was the highest in the National League since Bill Terry hit .401 in 1930.

Gwynn was that great. You probably won't find but a handful of players with Gwynn’s hitting philosophy in today’s game. When he went into diamond warfare, he didn’t carry a bazooka. Gwynn liked to show off his batting mastery by spraying the ball over the field with a tooth-pick sized bat seemingly better fit for a 13-year old. While he had a razor sharp eye at the plate, he was also a very aggressive hitter and often swung at balls out of the typical strike zone.

The small and light bats allowed him to wait longer before committing to his swing; he was rarely fooled by a pitch. In the first 12 years of his MLB career, Gwynn used a 32 1/2-inch, 31-ounce bat. In his final eight years, he swung a 33-inch, 30 1/2 ounce bat. He wanted his wooden bats light like the aluminum bats he used in college. 

Gwynn was the opposite of an Adonis. He didn’t flex the sexy biceps and ripped abdomens that were popping up all over baseball as the Steroids Era got into full swing. He looked chubby and overweight. He had big cheeks that he kept stuffed with chew and he was a happy-go-lucky guy, who you never saw explode or instigate confrontations. Gwynn was more silly, silent and deadly.

It’s always a major loss when one of the masters of a specialized craft or skill is gone. The baseball community should feel that way today. The art of hitting is a tedious and complex technique that is mastered by few. Many hitters have succumbed to the contortionist capabilities of a curveball, the wicked flight of a slider and the warp-speed nose dive of the split-finger fastball.

Gwynn could hit anything a pitcher threw. His success is attributed to his mental approach and jack rabbit reflexes. He worked the count like a Midtown Manhattan beggar at The Columbus Day Parade. He was always thinking two steps ahead and his ability to identify a pitch mid-flight, adjust to it and put it anywhere on the field he chose to, is incomparable and inconceivable by today’s hitting standards.

I doubt that Gwynn’s impact on the game will ever be fully appreciated. Most casual baseball fans don’t even know who “Mr. Padre” is. If a player of Gwynn’s stature played in New York or LA, he’d be considered a Top 3 all-time hitter. The batting average and hit totals he compiled were Wii- sports-like.

He hit over .350 seven times! The only year of his career (1982-2001) that he hit below .300 was his rookie season, when he batted .289. In the hood, he was known as the "Black Ty Cobb." A hit machine the likes of which we’ve never seen in this generation. His work ethic is legendary, but make no mistake he also had freakish, God-given, superior talent.

Gwynn made a mockery out of batting titles winning as many as the pre-integration legendary shortstop Honus Wagner. Wade Boggs, Itchiro Suzuki and Rod Carew are the only players off the top that I can think of who come close to matching Gwynn’s strike zone-savvy and ability to generate contact. The man never struck out more than 40 times in a season. These days, 100-K seasons are cool, even if you don’t hit the long ball.

I was never a San Diego Padres fan, but I did root for them in the 1984 World Series against the Tigers. I couldn’t root for him against The Yankees in the 1998 World Series, but Gwynn got his off in both losing efforts batting .371.

Respect to the legends. Understand that a baseball gem is being laid to rest. When you speak of players who defined the game and are the “epitome” of baseball players, toss in Tony.

He wasn’t really fast, but he did steal 56 bases and hit .370 in 1987. At 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, he was described to have a “body by Betty Crocker,” in reference to the cake mix. Gwynn was plagued by knee injuries over the years which much of Padres Nation blamed on weight problems, but it could also be attributed to the torque Gwynn put on his knees over two decades of murdering pitchers. He had 13 operations in his career, eight on his knees. Gwynn once said he had a “football player’s body,” and he'd get more media love if he "looked the part" of an all-world athlete. 

Maybe, but his frame never stopped him from becoming a two-sport star at San Diego State in basketball and diamond-mining. The Long Beach native began his college career as a highly-recruited point guard and blossomed into a two-time All-American with the Aztecs baseball team. He was drafted to the NBA by the Clippers and on the same day was drafted by the Padres. Only a select few of history's celebrated two-sport stars can boast such a distinction.

“Most people who get to the majors league play baseball all their lives,” Gwynn said, on an MLB Network feature on his life. “I played basketball the majority of the time. I couldn’t throw. I wasn’t a real good defender or base runner but I went to the instructional league and got a chance to hear Rod Carew talk about working hard and doing things to make yourself the best player you could be and I took it to heart. I was a guy that had to work hard at this craft." 

Gwynn grinded so hard that he changed the science of hitting forever, revolutionizing the game with his use of video and spawning the moniker "Captain Video."

Gwynn was living proof that looks are deceiving, but to a young African-American baseball fan growing up in the Reagan Era, he was a picture of pure beauty and perfection at the plate.

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