War Minus the Shooting: The Death of Captain Video

When I was a kid, growing up in Phoenix — then a fairly small town, long before the arrival of the Diamondbacks and without any notion it would soon grow into one of the ten largest cities in the country — there was some kind of rivalry going on with San Diego.  It never amounted to much more than the dumb friendly banter of radio DJs, and for me, it was impossible to understand:  both cities seemed pretty insignificant, overshadowed by the media titan that is Los Angeles, and so ignored by the rest of the country that the rivalry seemed even more pointless than such bogus feuds normally are.  When I got older and developed into a serious baseball fan, a complexity of circumstance led me to follow the Chicago White Sox, so the Arizona Diamondbacks meant little to me, and the San Diego Padres even less.  Aside from a residual childhood enjoyment of the Cincinnati Reds, a vague interest in whoever would win the pennant and face the AL champs (or, to be more specific, the Yankees) in the World Series, and a White Sox fan’s perpetual desire to see how badly the Cubs would fare every season, the National League was more or less an abstraction to me, a duller and lesser creation.  And the Padres, in particular, who have for most of my life have been in a pretty sorry state — well, I’m certainly not the only person to joke about them being a triple-A team that someone accidentally gave a key to the majors.

But there’s one thing about the Padres I always cared about, and never joked about, and that’s Tony Gwynn.

Gwynn was a lifelong Padre, a member of the team almost by birth, an essential part of the team’s DNA.  He played for twenty seasons for San Diego, many of which must have been excruciatingly frustrating for someone with his drive and determination to improve, but he never let it show in any outward display of bitterness or resentment.  He did what he always did:  headed back to the room that gave him his nickname of “Captain Video”, watched tape of his own swing and the delivery of all the pitchers he knew he would face, and set out to get better.  He was one of those ballplayers, so rare in every era, that it was impossible not to like; if you were a Padres fan, you took inordinate pride in him, and if you weren’t, you wished he didn’t play for the Padres.  You longed for him to succeed — and God, did he succeed! — even if you had to face him.  As David Roth puts it in his fine remembrance of the man, Gwynn was post-partisan, the kind of player you rooted for no matter what your own interests were — a man who, though, inextricably linked with one ballclub, belonged to all of baseball.

His virtues are almost impossible to list in one sitting; a career as tremendous as his takes up pages and pages to recount, and is beyond worthy of enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.  Although he didn’t really look like a  baseball player — his younger, slimmer self more resembled the collegiate basketball star he started out as, and his older, tubbier incarnation looked more like a gregarious TV weatherman than any kind of an athlete — his bona fides were beyond question.  He may not have been the greatest hitter I ever saw on a regular basis (I watched Frank Thomas every day throughout the 1990s), and he may not have delivered the greatest hitting performances I’ve ever witnessed (Albert Belle’s second half with the White Sox in 1998 is the most electrifying hitting streak I’ve gotten to see up close), but during the greatest part of my early baseball fandom, Tony Gwynn was probably the best hitter alive.  In a way, he belonged to another era; his numbers are so spectacular that they place him largely in the company of men who played during the dead ball era.  His preference for high-percentage shots placed seemingly at will around the park also made him a throwback in the years where no one cared about hitters who didn’t routinely launch them over the outfield walls, but he perfected his hitting in a very modern way.  He combined old-school knowledge and self-discipline with the most modern tools available to him, studying his own swing mercilessly to detect any hesitation or flaw and scouting out his opposition, looking at opposing pitchers the way Patton studied enemy tanks.

This is all reflected in the kind of numbers Gwynn put up — numbers which, at a time when hypertrophied steroid cases were pounding out home runs like it was the only way to play the game, placed him in the company of ancient names like Ty Cobb and Joe Jackson.  Though he always possessed deceptive speed and could break out plenty of power when called upon to do so, it was his mind-blowing consistency at the plate that made him such a wonder to behold, and the knowledge that he did it through relentless study and self-improvement, dispensing with arrant nonsense about ‘natural’ hitters, made it all the more enjoyable.  He started out amazingly good and only got better; not a single season of his two decades was unproductive, and he seemed to get better as he got older.  We’ve become used to something rather embarrassing in today’s game inasmuch as we now accept without complaint  hitters who swing with abandon at nearly everything; plate discipline is becoming a thing of the past, and as long as a guy can crush it semi-regularly, we’re happy to trade big HR totals for a mountain of strikeouts.  Not so with Gwynn:  despite facing some of the most dominant pitching of the ’80s and ’90s, he was next to impossible to strike out.  He had 45 games where he registered four or more hits, and only 34 in which he struck out more than once, meaning he was more likely to have a four-hit game than a two-strikeout game — a statistic that’s so astounding it seems invented.  This against the likes of Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine, Curt Schilling, and Greg Maddux — off whom he hit .415.

And it’s hardly the only amazing statistic to the man’s credit.  If you’re looking for jaw-dropping numbers in the career of Tony Gwynn, there’s plenty of them to be found, but here’s one that makes my eyes pop:  his career batting average was so high that in order for it to go below .300, he’d have to have added almost 1,200 more at-bats without a single hit to his lifetime total.  These incredible numbers were ones he accumulated with bunts, drop singles, hit-and-runs, and smashes to all parts of the field, as he used his superb vision to constantly place the ball where he knew no fielder could get to it.  In the realm of what we might call ‘control hitters’, only Ichiro Suzuki can rival Gwynn in the modern era.  He also ran bases fiercely and skillfully, relying less on quickness than on timing and the ability to distract fielders and pitchers; and he started out as a poor to middling fielder, but got better the way he did with everything else:  intelligence, willpower, and careful study of his own game and that of his opponents.

Many players with such an approach could come across as cold, calculating, overserious — but never Tony Gwynn.  After his terrifyingly young death yesterday at the age of 54, Gwynn was remembered by no less a personage than Vin Scully for his charming smile, his infectious laugh, and his perpetually cheery manner.  He led his team — truly a thankless task, with some of those Padres squads — when it needed leading, but he did so always with grace and empathy, for he was too bright to be stern and too focused to be cruel.  The internet is lit up today with people saying good things about Gwynn, but no fewer than said those things about him when he was alive; no one is loved by everybody, but the worst people ever seemed to say about Gwynn was that it was very frustrating having to play against him.  Smart, engaging, dedicated, hugely talented, and devoted to his fans, his family, and his home team and home town, Gwynn is the kind of player everybody wishes they had, and only poor, overlooked San Diego actually got to have him.

The title of my occasional sports column comes from a quote by George Orwell:  “Serious sport has  nothing to do with fair play.  It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence.  In other words, it is war minus the shooting.”  It is a tribute to Tony Gwynn that he proved Orwell wrong.  Though he demanded of himself the discipline, rigor and will to win of any general, there was no sadism, pettiness, or loathing in the man, and for him, it was never a war and always a game; but a game he played like no one else of his time.  Gone to soon and sorely missed, we can only see him now the way he always saw himself:  performing the art of baseball on video.  In himself, he saw the endless need for self-improvement; we see something like a miracle.

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