Monday, June 16, 2014

By David Saltzer, Senior Writer

Growing up in Southern California in the 1980s, two things were always certain in the summer: It was always sunny and Tony Gwynn always got hit.  

Scratch that. Sometimes it rained.

I’m not old enough to have seen Ted Williams play baseball. But I did see Tony Gwynn. Some say that Gwynn was the best hitter since Williams and I believe it. He was magic with the bat and probably the best I’ve ever seen. The only time I would watch a Dodgers game on TV by choice was when they played the Padres—and that was just to watch Tony Gwynn hit.

Baseball is a great game. It teaches so many life lessons. Today, it reminded me of how short life is. Tony was just 54. That’s not too much older than me. I have friends older than that. I haven’t talked to a few in a while. Maybe I will give them a call tonight.

This year has been a bad year for the baseball community, especially the Padres. There have been lots of notable losses recently, and each is a tragedy in its own way.

But the news today about Tony Gwynn hit home with me more. It’s probably because Tony was a link to the way baseball once was and how I loved seeing it played.

For almost all of my life, baseball has had free agency. Now, I’m not going to argue that the prior system was better, but, I grew up hearing about fans knowing their players for their entire careers. I always wanted that, and with the exception of Tim Salmon, never really had that experience.

There were some exceptions. Tony Gwynn was an exception. He played his entire career—20 years—for the Padres. Most likely he could have made more money elsewhere or had more of the limelight in another venue. Instead, he played his entire career in relative obscurity in San Diego.

It was that obscurity that allowed me to have my favorite memory with Tony Gwynn—his 1994 season. Prior to the start of the season, my college friends and I decided to do setup a fantasy baseball league. We all thought we knew something about the game, and so we all drafted a team. Around the 6th round of the draft, I was shocked to see Tony Gwynn still available, so I picked him. Boy was I glad that I did.

That summer, I went away to do research in Russia. This was the era before wifi and cellular communications. Email barely existed—and only with dial up connections. When I got back, I had so many letters and phone calls from everyone in the league begging me to trade him. That season was unreal. He hit .394/.454/.568—the closest that anyone has come to breaking Ted Williams’ record. Sure, the season ended poorly for baseball, but I will always remember winning my first fantasy league thanks to him and his chase to break .400.

It was a keeper league. Let’s just say I had a nice run with him in fantasy baseball over the next few years—much to my friends’ chagrin.

What separated Gwynn from others was how he worked each and every at bat. For his career, Gwynn had nearly twice as many walks (790) as he did strikeouts (434). Long before Moneyball, Gwynn was doing everything he could to help his team score runs. The only season where he didn’t have more walks than strikeouts was his rookie season—and  that was in just a third of a season (14 BBs to 16 Ks). He didn’t hit for that much power (although he did have some pop in his bat). He just quietly went up to the plate and got his hits.

Some players are fan favorites because of the way they play the game or their on the field accomplishments. Some become legends for the way they play the game. Their exploits grant them a spot in the Hall of Fame.

But some players, they transcend the game. They get immortalized in ways like no other. They change the game in ways that last for generations. 

Tony Gwynn was one such player transcendent player. Look around the league tonight. You’ll see Tony Gwynn in ways you won’t even know.

Look at the bats when every player steps up to the plate. Watch for the players with two-toned Louisville Slugger bats—the ones with a black barrel and a natural finish. They’re in vogue right now.

What you probably don’t know is that there is a name for that type of finish on a Louisville Slugger bat. It’s called the Tony Gwynn finish. Tony Gwynn was such a good hitter, that his name will forever be associated with that style of bat. Not many players have bats named for them. 

Like most fans, I didn’t know about Gwynn’s battles with salivary gland cancer. Most likely Gwynn got it from years of chewing smokeless tobacco. With all the focus on PEDs and steroids, baseball has overlooked the perils of chewing tobacco. It’s an ugly habit—one that I hope gets banned by baseball.

If we are to make anything of Gwynn’s tragic early demise, I hope that it is to raise awareness again about the dangers of chewing and the direct connection tobacco has to cancer. Baseball has a chance to do something good here. MLB could draw attention to the perils of dipping by banning the substance and setting aside June 16th as an anti-tobacco day. Much like when baseball uses pink bats on Mother’s Day to raise funds for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization, every year baseball could have all the players use bats with a Tony Gwynn finish to raise funds for tobacco awareness and cancer research. I know I’d buy one just to remember the greatness that he was.

Louisville 2Tone Hard Maple Youth Wood Baseball Bat , Teal, 31 

Love to hear what you think!

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