Watch: Tony Gwynn interview
LOS ANGELES – Fifteen years ago, on a schoolyard paved and lined in the shadow of the St. Louis Cardinals, a young boy who had outgrown most of his class imagined himself as Tony Gwynn.
Fifteen years ago, behind a house in central Louisiana, a bony Creole kid dragged the head of a hollow plastic bat and imagined himself as Tony Gwynn.
Left-handed hitters both, one built for power and the other for speed, they firmed their front legs and steadied their heads and hinged their left elbows and drove their bottom hands.
And while Tony Gwynn himself lined and poked and slapped 3,141 hits in San Diego, Ryan Howard grew broader still and became a major-league home-run champion, and Juan Pierre stayed wispy and twice led the National League in hits.
Preceded in his 20-year, Hall of Fame career by the knob of his bat, Gwynn is succeeded by the mechanics, the effort, and the style left to hitters such as Howard and Pierre, whose contrary statures and outcomes belie a shared delivery into the batters' box.
"Oh, man, he was the pinnacle," said Pierre, the Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder. "I remember being in the backyard playing Wiffle ball with my brother and imitating Tony Gwynn, hitting the ball the other way, not realizing at the time it was helping me out. But, I remember trying to sit back, wait, hit the ball the other way. He did it better than anybody. I've got so much respect for him, the way he went about his business."
When his friends were loading up and pantomiming Jose Canseco and Barry Bonds and, eventually, the local guy – Mark McGwire – Howard was onto Gwynn, who never hit more than 17 home runs, a good couple of months for Howard.
"He was more that contact guy," said Howard, the Philadelphia Phillies first baseman."The thing I was thinking about, you can't hit home runs if you don't make contact. So, you gotta be a contact hitter first and you let everything else take over."
That was Gwynn's approach.
Six days before his .338 lifetime average would take its place with some of the great baseball careers, before the game would acknowledge more than 10,000 plate appearances and fewer than 450 strikeouts, his early years as a base stealer and Gold Glove winner, and two decades of head-down, jaw-set, high-end baseball, Gwynn sat among a ringing phone and a swinging door in his office at San Diego State.
He'd met Howard when Howard was in high school, signing a copy of his book, "The Art of Hitting" for him. Two winters ago, Howard traveled to San Diego to spend a week in Gwynn's batting cages, hitting alongside, among others, a minor-leaguer named Prince Fielder.
He'd met Pierre in September of 2000 in the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot, where he'd waited to wave over the rookie who'd plied a flatteringly familiar inside-out swing.
"How you doing, Mr. Gwynn?" Pierre had said on the way by, assuming Gwynn was waiting on someone else.
"You gonna walk right past me?" Gwynn had snapped, playful. "I've been waiting all night out here to talk to you."
So talk they did.
"He knew I was just coming up," Pierre recalled. "That conversation was him just telling me about how to go about my business, and it's stuck with me my whole career. That's one of my best stories I have playing baseball."
Gwynn remembered. He liked the kid, liked his idea of contact and plate-appearance survival and getting them before they got you. Just as he had liked Howard and his powerful bottom hand, the unusual backspin he'd put on a teed Wiffle ball in the batting cage, that ball spinning against the net for what seemed like a minute before petering out and collapsing to the floor.
"My game was developed," Gwynn said. "I wasn't blessed with it. Then you come to realize good hitters do the same things. So, it's not surprising those guys copied from me, because that's what I did. I just copied."
From Rod Carew. George Brett. Pete Rose.
"I copied what they did because they were successful," he said. "And that's what's great about the game of baseball; there's a million ways to do the same thing. You can be Ryan Howard at 6-foot-4, 260 or you can be Juan Pierre at 5-foot-10, 165. And the approach works for them."
Gwynn let out his signature cackle.
"They should credit somebody else," he said, "because I stole it, too."
He was, perhaps, just a little better at it.
In that process, he became a rarity in his sport and in his era – if not in his Hall-of-Fame class: That of one city, one approach, one body.
He wore every incarnation of San Diego Padres uniform for two decades, but only those uniforms, god-awful as some may have been. He is an icon by the sea, where to this day strangers in the supermarket will ask, "How'd we do today?"
"A lot of them think I still play," he said.
Now there's a statue outside Petco Park, Gwynn timelessly driving the ball the other way, locked in, his eye following the end of the bat to the baseball's inner half.
He found a batting stroke early in his career and generally stuck with it. While Ted Williams convinced him later on to release his top hand after contact on inside pitches, resulting in a career-high 17 home runs as a 37-year-old, the philosophy served simply to force pitchers to pitch him away again, allowing him to return to his favored left-center field alley.
"I always said he didn't hit with a bat," Dodgers left fielder Luis Gonzalez said. "He hit with a magic wand."
Gonzalez said he'd watch Gwynn get into the batters' box and look out over the field.
"I just know he'd think, 'OK, I'm going to hit it right there,'" he said.
And then he wouldn't know where to play him.
"You couldn't use the tendency charts," Gonzalez said, "because when you looked at them there were dots all over the place."
More than 3,000 places, ultimately, just in hits alone.
When Rich Donnelly was coaching third base in Florida, and Gwynn was at the plate, the Marlins occasionally didn't have anyone cover second base on hit-and-runs. Or so the legend goes.
"We just said, 'Don't cover anywhere, 'cause he ain't swingin' and missin','" Donnelly said.
A confessed "Punch-and-Judy" hitter, Gwynn survived and prospered when other players' physiques changed in a winter. Gwynn's followed the normal human arc, from pudgy to round to rounder. Perhaps it was that, as much as anything else, that brought hitters to his door, they recognizing they weren't necessarily physically blessed with it, either.
So, he understood it better, or worked harder, or something.
"When we talked, his message was always to keep things simple," San Francisco Giants outfielder Dave Roberts said. "After you get over the first part, where you're just so awestruck you don't hear anything he says because you can't believe you're talking to him, that's his message. You know, he's just an ordinary guy who was a great hitter. He wasn't so big or fast or strong. You could look at him and say, 'He's one of us. He's a baseball player.' And now a Hall-of-Famer. And rightfully so."
Seven years ago, in a dimly lit parking lot, a bony Creole kid got the message he carries with him still. The game would work for him, if he'd work for it. And it was OK if he went on imagining himself as Tony Gwynn – -- one city, one approach, one body.
"He went through that era," Pierre said. "His game still worked. For the guys who did use other stuff, it made it harder for guys like me. There were guys my size hitting balls 500 feet. But, if you remain consistent, hopefully, baseball will realize that we score runs, get on, do the little things still help the team. I could go 3-for-3 with two stolen bases. Somebody else goes 1-for-4 with a three-run jack and everybody runs to them. I'm OK with it. I'm OK with being Robin. They can be Batman. Yeah, it's a good thing, him going into the Hall of Fame at this point in time."
Six days from it, Gwynn had only two days before seeing Howard hit two home runs in San Diego, one of them to left-center field.
"That's why the game is so wonderful," Gwynn said. "You don't have to be like Ryan Howard. You can be like Juan Pierre."
"Or, Tony Gwynn."