As a young fan of the game you aren’t necessarily watching baseball for the beautiful execution of a hit and run or a great inside out swing, instead, the experience is much more aesthetic. The deep fly ball, lightning speed around the bases, and the diving catch in the outfield is what draws the young viewers. However, Tony Gwynn wasn’t necessarily known for any of those things. So why did I, and thousands of other kids sit in front of the television and watch him with shear excitement. I don’t think it’s as simple as his likable demeanor or gaudy numbers, though those did help. I think there is something about a player like Tony Gwynn that even a kid who knows relatively little about the game can detect.
I’m an avid sports fan and regular listener to ESPN radio. Every morning, I listen to Colin Cowherd’s show, “The Herd.” One of the main points Cowherd argues is that truly transcendent talent has one thing in common: they’re obsessed. They’re obsession with their sport and being the absolute best at it often borders on an unhealthy level. He uses Peyton Manning’s ability to master an offense to near perfection as an example of this obsession. That was Tony Gwynn, a man with a unique ability, unmatched work ethic and an obsession with hitting a baseball.
I was given the privilege of speaking with Tony’s younger brother, Chris.
Chris described his brother’s unique ability to hit a baseball in a short story about their childhood pick up games using what he called a sock ball.
A sock ball in the Gwynn household was a tube sock taped into a tight ball.
“I would get to the point where I was standing 15 feet away from him with our sock ball, throwing it as hard as I could. He would hit it every time… sometimes the thing would come whizzing past my head. I always knew he was gonna be good.”
Gwynn’s innate athletic abilities weren’t just noticeable to his brother early in Tony’s baseball career.
Similar to Chris Gwynn, San Diego State’s shortstop Bobby Meacham was aware of the exceptional talent Gwynn possessed. Meacham attended Mater Dei high school in the same area of Gwynn’s high school, Long Beach Poly. Meacham asserts that Gwynn was by far the best baseball player in the area and said he was “shocked” when he found out Gwynn went to SDSU and wasn’t on the baseball team. Instead, Gwynn was attending SDSU on a scholarship to play point guard for the Aztecs basketball team for coach Tim Vezie. Coach Vezie wasn’t about to let his star point guard wander off to the baseball team and for good reason.
I spoke with Jim Ranson, another guard for the Aztecs with Gwynn. Unsurprisingly, he described Gwynn as, “a technician on the the court with more than one attribute.” Ranson also expressed how Gwynn was always looking to get his teammates involved and was mainly concerned with running an efficient offense. According to Ranson, Gwynn’s athletic ability on the court was unmatched and he used his quickness and unselfish play to ignite the Aztec’s offense.
As one of the Aztec’s better players, Meacham pushed for Gwynn to have the opportunity to try out for the baseball team. Meacham’s efforts were ineffective until Coach Vezie was fired at the end of Gwynn’s freshman season, giving him free reign to take his talents to the baseball diamond.
Once on the path to the start of his Aztec baseball career, Gwynn came across SDSU’s first basemen Tony Camara. When I spoke with Camara he described his first experience with Tony Gwynn the baseball player and his immediate realization of Gwynn’s talents.
“I was a senior on the team when Gwynn decided to try out. Coach Dietz asked me to take him down to the cages and toss him some balls. I was more curious than evaluative because I had seen him play basketball at such a high level. I was wondering if he could really play baseball.”
Camara quickly found out that Gwynn could, in fact, “really play baseball.”
“He had an uncanny ability to put the bat on the ball, even after missing an entire year. I knew he could do it,” said Camara.
Once Gwynn’s abilities were noticed by those around him, he began to develop the work ethic which he became known for later in his career.
In addition to Tony Camara and Bobby Meacham I spoke with Monte McAbee, an outfielder, and Randy Bernstein, a first basemen/outfielder. All four of Gwynn’s Aztec teammates discussed what it was like to play with Tony Gwynn the baseball player. It seemed that the four of them each quickly reached the consensus that Gwynn was not just a great athlete who played baseball.
Each of them shared their experiences as they watched Gwynn build himself into an elite college hitter. Monte McAbee expressed his amazement in Gwynn’s ability to log long hours in the batting cage. Comparable to Gwynn’s efforts to improve his swing were his efforts in improving his fielding abilities, a sub-par feature of his game at the time. “He always enjoyed taking fly balls in the outfield and made sure to ask for advice from the other outfielders,” said Tony Camara, adding “we all realized that he was serious about baseball very quickly.” Even so, probably the most important part of this topic was brought forth by Bobby Meacham. Meacham pointed out that even though Gwynn was able to hit line drives all over the field after a lengthy hiatus due to basketball, it was his consistent work that allowed him to continue to elevate his game even though he missed the entire fall semester.
In addition to Gwynn’s ability to put in long hours of physical work was his remarkable sponge-like capacity to learn the mental aspects of baseball. When Tony Camara and I discussed this topic, Camara described Gwynn as a very cerebral player, “it seemed like he was always thinking, and always learning.” McAbee echoed similarly saying, “he became a student of the game very quickly, and he was always trying to start a conversation about hitting.”
The idea of Gwynn being a “student” of the game is especially interesting because according to Randy Bernstein, “he (Gwynn) didn’t like school very much.” Although Gwynn was an actual student at SDSU, and for the most part passed his classes, he was a student of baseball first and foremost. Bernstein told me that Gwynn truly embraced Aztecs’s coach Jim Dietz’s approach of hitting the ball where it’s pitched. He went on the explain how hitting the ball to the opposite field “wasn’t cool” during that time, however Gwynn embraced the approach because he knew it was the correct way.
Based on the comments of Gwynn’s Aztec teammates it seems as though it was during this time in his life when Gwynn developed both a physical and mental obsession with baseball. However, this never got in the way of the relationships he made and the people who needed him.
His former Aztec teammates went on the describe what Gwynn was like as a teammate and how he interacted with guys in the clubhouse. Camara stated that although Gwynn was quiet most of the time, he always enjoyed himself, and that kind of attitude quickly spread to the rest of the team. McAbee, a fellow outfielder, had the opportunity to room with Gwynn on several road trips. McAbee said that Gwynn was a great roommate and was always thoughtful and considerate. Similarly, Bobby Meacham thoughtfully described Gwynn as “a guy who loved to play, loved the camaraderie of his teammates, and was an incredibly faithful man.” Based on the short conversations I had with all of Gwynn’s teammates, it was obvious how much each of them respected Tony. It was also apparent how appreciative they were of his on and off the field efforts of being a good teammate.
In addition to Tony’s actual younger brother, Chris, I spoke with another of Tony’s Padres teammates who felt a sibling like connection with him as well. Padre’s outfielder and middle infielder Damian Jackson expressed how much he looked up to Gwynn as well as how much he had learned from his hall of fame teammate. First, Jackson and I discussed Gwynn’s obsession with the game. He commented that, “Gwynn never gave himself enough credit, he always thought he could do better, and he was always hungry for more.” This obsession often brought Gwynn to the park seven hours prior to the start of the game, and on occasion, to the batting cages after the game. I asked Jackson what other player’s opinions of Gwynn were; he answered that everyone thought he was “a freak of nature.” However, Damian quickly pointed out that it was Gwynn’s work ethic that made him into that freak of nature. That said, Jackson stressed above all else that Gwynn “was as consistent of a man as he was hitter.” Jackson went on to say “he treated everyone equally in the clubhouse, regardless of age or race. Some people leaned on him more than others, but everyone quickly found out that you could come to Tony.”
Next, I asked Chris Gwynn how Tony treated him as a teammate compared to other guys. Surprisingly, Chris answered that there wasn’t a difference, saying “Tony treated everyone on his team like family…he always made sure everyone felt good about what they were doing.” I asked Chris what it was like to see his brother in that light for the first time in their lives, since Chris was nearly five years Tony’s junior. He replied, “I was just excited to play with him so he wasn’t beating me anymore.”
Since Chris played Tony in the prime of his (Tony’s) career he got to experience the most polished version of his brother. He told me how amazing it was to watch Tony “manipulate and control things during the game.” At that advanced stage in his career Gwynn’s obsession with baseball had created a hitter who was completely in control of the game while he played it. His brother marveled at how confident and “stress free” Tony played. I asked Chris how his brother managed to remain so close to his teammates and family while devoting himself entirely to baseball. He told me one final story that flawlessly describes Tony Gwynn and what he truly cared about.
During the early stages of Gwynn’s career he discovered an enormous contributor to his hitting abilities: video. He would film hours upon hours of his batting cage sessions equaling hundreds of thousands of swings. The person on the other side of the video camera was his wife Alicia.
Even though Tony Gwynn spent a mind boggling amount of time working on his craft he never excluded those he loved; instead he welcomed them with open arms.
Tony Gwynn gave himself to baseball. What you saw on the field was Tony Gwynn in his purest form. I think there is something to that; I think that it’s visually obvious when a player has second to none talent and an uninhibited passion for their game. When you saw Tony Gwynn the baseball player you were seeing Tony Gwynn the man, diligent, joyful and obsessed with being a great hitter. I think it was the blurred lines between the man he was and the player he was that made him distinctly different than any other player. I think it was this distinction that captured my attention as a little kid, along with thousands of others.
*Featured Photo (above) credit to the Associated Press