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Tony Gwynn died Monday at the age of 54 after a long battle with cancer.
Gwynn was arguably the best and most beloved athlete in San Diego history. He was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility with 97.6 percent of the vote.
An eight-time batting champion, Gwynn usually seemed to know where a pitch would be and exactly where he wanted to direct the ball with his bat. He excelled at going with the pitch, meaning he could either slap, drive or pull the ball depending on where and what kind of pitch came to home plate.
He was, by most objective measures, the best hitter in the modern age of baseball. He was no slouch in the field either, winning five Gold Glove awards.
Here are five things that made Gwynn so indelible to baseball and the San Diego sports landscape.
He was a San Diego basketball star, too.
Gwynn still possesses the most assists in a career (590), season (221 in 1979-80), and single game (18 vs. UNLV in 1980). Gwynn actually attended SDSU on a basketball scholarship, only joining the baseball team as in his sophomore season.
He invented the term ‘5.5 hole’ – the gap between shortstop and third base where he would send sharp ground balls and line drives into left field.
San Diego Magazine described how it worked in a 2007 story:
Though Gwynn was never a power hitter (his season high for home runs was 17), it’s still remarkable, and a testament to his selflessness, that he opted for so many single-base hits over the chance for doubles (though he hit plenty) or the occasional home run. The attraction of the 5.5 hole for a lefty is that most pitchers like to work the outside of the plate, knowing it will be more difficult for hitters to handle pitches there. Gwynn made the best of what was available. Rather than stubbornly try to pull outside pitches, a maneuver that tends to result in effete taps back to the pitcher and Louisville Sluggers snapped across the knee, Gwynn “went with” the pitch, slapping hard ground balls, and punching line drives into left field and acquiring a good portion of his 3,141 hits in the process.
Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux couldn’t figure him out.
Greg Maddux’s long and successful career was defined by his ability to change up his pitches and keep hitters off-balance. He told The Washington Post that if a pitcher can change speeds, every hitter is helpless, limited by human vision.
Gwynn never struck out against Maddux, while touching him up for an incredible .429 career average.
He was praised for his friendly manner, but possessed a quick wit.
One of the enduring memories of Gwynn will be his southern-esque drawl. Despite being born in Los Angeles and raised in Long Beach, Gwynn’s unaffected dropped-G accent gave him a folksy charm, along with his rolling, infectious laugh.
But his wit could bite when he wanted it to, like during the second of the two World Series he played in:
In Game 1 of the 1998 World Series, Gwynn turned on a pitch by San Diego native and fellow lefty David Wells, driving it off the facade of Yankee Stadium’s upper deck for a home run.
The prevailing reaction?
“Shock. And I remember it,” Gwynn said. “One of the reasons why is because after that game, you’re dealing with the New York press. You just lost a game that you led 5-2 and one of the New York guys asked me, had I ever hit a ball that far before. I said, ‘Yeah. It’s not my fault you never saw me play.‘”
He liked the symbolism of his Mr. Padre statue at Petco Park.
On Tony Gwynn Drive outside Petco Park, at Tony Gwynn Stadium on the San Diego State campus and at the 10-foot Mr. Padre statue at the Park at the Park, Gwynn will always be part of the city.
An impromptu memorial at the base of Gwynn’s statue quickly materialized after his passing. Public viewings of World Cup soccer matches to be held at the Park at the Park were cancelled.
The day his statue was unveiled in 2007, Gwynn reflected on its significance.
“Statues are kind of symbolic,” he said. “Even when I’m dead and gone this statue is going to be here, and that’s a way to remind people what you did when you were here, and that’s a cool thing.”
It is a cool thing, T., and San Diego will always remember what you did here. Rest in peace, No. 19.