Tony Gwynn died on Monday at the age of 54. Gwynn played 20 seasons for the San Diego Padres, hitting a .338 career average and racking up 3,141 hits, good for number 19 on the all-time list. He was a 15-time All-Star, an 8-time National League batting champion, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007.
ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian covered Gwynn’s career, and he joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: Tim, you interviewed Tony Gwynn many times. Tell us about Gwynn, the person.
TK: Well, he’s one of the best guys that I’ve ever met in baseball Bill, and I’ve been covering for 35 years. I go back to the first time I ever interviewed him – and it wasn’t an interview, it was a conversation. So after I spoke to him for 30 minutes that day, I saw him a month later and he said, “What are we gonna talk about today?” Meaning, what are we going to talk about. It was a two-way thing, it wasn’t just me bothering him or pestering him. He was interested in the subject matter, and that was so rare for a player who played during that time.
“I think you could make the case that, other than maybe Cal Ripken in Baltimore, nobody was more popular in his hometown than Tony Gwynn.”
BL: You have called Tony Gwynn the greatest “hitting scientist” since Ted Williams.
TK: I’ve never seen anybody who understood the art of hitting better than him. His eyesight was better than anybody else’s, and he loved his bats so much that for one year – 1994, the year he he almost hit .400 – he told me he used basically one bat the entire year. And he told me the following spring training, taking batting practice on a back field alone with coach Rob Picciolo, he broke his bat. And he looked at me and he said, “When I broke that bat, I almost started crying.”
BL: Tim, more than one fan was choked up at PETCO Park on Monday, as San Diegans gathered to pay tribute. Tales of Gwynn’s love for his fans appear not to have been exaggerated.
TK: Certainly not. I think you could make the case that, other than maybe Cal Ripken in Baltimore, nobody was more popular in his hometown than Tony Gwynn. And he took hometown discounts all the time in order to stay and play in front of the hometown fans. I covered the Hall of Fame induction in which Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn went in together – how appropriate is that, by the way – and it was the largest crowd in the history of Cooperstown for Induction Sunday. And granted, there were a lot of Ripken people there because Cooperstown is not far from Baltimore, but I was astounded with how many Padres fans were at that induction to praise Tony Gwynn. And of course, he rifled through that speech, it was absolutely brilliant, he did a great job because Tony Gwynn did a great job at virtually everything he tried.
BL: Gwynn died of cancer of the salivary gland, and he was a frequent user of smokeless tobacco. Major League Baseball does not ban the use of tobacco except in the minor leagues. Should Gwynn’s death prompt the league to review that policy?
TK: Yeah, and I think they will review it, but I’m not encouraged that anything is gonna be done to ban it on the major league level, and I wish they would. It’s a very addictive situation, which I think is why they’re not gonna outlaw it, but I wish they would because we cannot lose another Tony Gwynn at such a young age.
BL: I know that you covered Tony Gwynn thoroughly for a very long time, is there one more Tony Gwynn story that you have?
TK: He told me one night about the night that he struck out three times. He struck out three times once in his career, and he had 297 three-hit games, and one three-strikeout game. But he said it like what a failure he was, because he told me after that game, “I hate striking out, it’s embarrassing. I’d rather hit a weak grounder back to the pitcher, but I’m not gonna strike out.” And he never struck out more than 40 times in any season. And some guys, Bill, strike out 40 times in a month. More than sometimes, these days.