A superhero in the batter's box


As you walked through the doors of the San Diego Padres clubhouse at Jack Murphy Stadium, into a rectangular room, Tony Gwynn's locker was in the far right corner, right next to the manager's office. Behind that, there was a small space, like a personal library, that served as Tony's science lab of hitting.

All were welcome, including reporters -- like me, when I was assigned to cover the Padres for the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1993 and 1994. Tony was one of the greatest hitters of all time, in the midst of a career in which he won eight batting titles and finished with a .338 lifetime average. But he also understood that if he made the game accessible to reporters through him, then that meant fans were included, too.

These days, every team in the majors has a mountain of video equipment and video operators. But Tony may well have been the first player to consistently use this technology in his constant search for hits. In fact, the video equipment that was in that little room belonged to Tony; he had bought it with his own money.

So if you asked him a question about an at-bat, or something that he was doing at the plate, Tony would pull you into a side room and run back the video and narrate what was on the screen for you. Once, he mashed a pivotal hit against the Dodgers, and afterward, he explained to me exactly what he had said to a teammate in the on-deck circle --- that Omar Daal would try to beat him with his little [expletive deleted] slider and then he would turn on it and drive it into the gap. He spoke anecdotally, with exceptional recall of context and words, and painted pictures. When he laughed, his shoulders shook, and he laughed a lot when talking about the daily challenges of playing a game filled with failure.

No wonder Ted Williams loved talking with him and Tony loved talking with Ted; they spoke the same language, had the same precise understanding of what they wanted to do with each pitch of each at-bat in each swing.

Gwynn had chronic knee troubles in the early '90s; but in 1994, he was relatively healthy, and he was hitting better than he had in any season of his career. In late July, the Padres took a trip through Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston; and during those 10 games, he had 19 hits in 40 at-bats, with one strikeout, pushing his batting average from .386 to .394.

He had a bat that he used only against pitchers who relied on soft stuff -- a special bat because it had so few grains. "Nine Grains of Pain," he called it, and he told me that if he got to the final weeks of the season and he had a shot to reach .400, he intended to use that bat in every game. In the world of hitters, this was like Clark Kent telling you he was about to jump into a phone booth. He had the smallest bat in the league, maybe the smallest hands, the softest handshake -- as if he were protecting the tools of his trade -- but the man was a superhero in the batter's box.

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