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The Swing Machine
TEXT BY RICHARD HOFFER
July 25, 2007
The Swing Machine never stopped striving to be better, studying every pitch of every at bat in search of perfection at a craft that measures success as failing two out of three times. Tony Gwynn's relentless pursuit of average defined a career that was anything but
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July 25, 2007

The Swing Machine

The Swing Machine never stopped striving to be better, studying every pitch of every at bat in search of perfection at a craft that measures success as failing two out of three times. Tony Gwynn's relentless pursuit of average defined a career that was anything but

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Gwynn played on until, with 21 games remaining and his average down to .317, he finally surrendered to arthroscopic surgery. His father was beside himself. The Atlanta Braves' Terry Pendleton was going to win a batting title that could have been retired weeks ago. "I told you! I told you!" Charles kept shouting at his son. Tony tried to explain, "Dad, you can't win a batting title that way. You just can't."

It would have been ... embarrassing. Gwynn finally won that fifth batting title in 1994, hitting .394 in a strike-shortened year that could well have produced the first .400 season since Ted Williams's in 1941. It was special. But his dad had died in 1993. "That fifth title bugged him forever," Gwynn says.

On Sept. 9, 1995, Gwynn was batting .363--leading the league, of course. But he hadn't really kicked into gear until Aug. 27, when Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza, who'd been injured earlier in the season, finally had enough at bats to qualify for the league lead. At the time Gwynn was hitting .357 to Piazza's .367. After a 13-game streak during which he hit .436, however, Gwynn had overtaken Piazza, who was at .360 on Sept. 6. Gwynn's brother Chris, a Dodgers outfielder, had telephoned Tony to tell him how much Piazza was talking about winning the batting crown. "Oh, man, he wants it bad," Chris had said.

"I know what it's like for anyone who's in a batting race for the first time," Gwynn says, "but I'm in a position where I don't worry about it anymore. I mean, if I don't win this year, do I feel like I can come back and win it next year? Yeah, sure."

Earlier in the '95 season Gwynn surpassed Wade Boggs of the New York Yankees to become the active major leaguer with the highest career batting average (through Sept. 3 he was at .335). At age 35 he is turning on the inside pitch more than ever, and his run production is up: He is on pace to drive in 109 runs. (His previous high was 72, in 1990.) Padres batting coach Merv Rettenmund says the book has changed on Gwynn the last three years. "He's not just a contact hitter," Rettenmund says. "He drives the ball."

Still, Gwynn is sitting in front of his cubicle in Atlanta, rolling his bat in his hands and lamenting the poor, pitiful season he has been having, how he muddled around near .300 before he finally found his stroke. Even though he has clearly found it now, tonight, as always, Gwynn will take back to his hotel a tape he has made of the game on a small VCR he carries on the road and hooks up to clubhouse monitors. Then, with a second VCR he totes, he will transfer his at bats to another tape. He will actually edit those at bats onto three separate tapes--one for good at bats, where he might have worked the count, fouled off tough pitches, just generally not gotten embarrassed; one of at bats with hits; and one of the swings that actually produced the hits. "If there are bad at bats on the tapes, I just click them out," he says. "Watch 'em once, click 'em out. You don't want to watch yourself looking like an idiot, waving at some curveball."

This system--refined from his out-of-control, pre-expansion days when he carried 11 tapes on the road with his at bats against the 11 other National League teams--was born in 1983, only a year later than his son Anthony, who now travels with the team during the summer. Tony and Alicia had purchased the camera gear to document Anthony's growth, but with Gwynn on the road and in a slump so profound that manager Dick Williams actually benched him, they found a more professional use for it. "I called home, told my wife to tape my at bats," says Gwynn. "Just hit the record button whenever I came to the plate. When I got home and looked at it, I saw right away what I was doing. I couldn't wait to get to the ballpark and correct it. Took me 15 swings. Hit .333 the rest of the year."

Since then he has gone to the tape more often than Marv Albert, and a legend has grown around Gwynn and his remote control. "It drives people crazy," he says. "It's tedious, splitting cables and everything, and I know it gets on people's nerves. But it works. In this game if you're successful, that means getting hits three out of 10 times. I'm trying to tap into the other 70 percent, and I don't mind doing it. It's not hard spending 20 minutes a day--pause, record, fast forward." He's squeaking again. If there's more to the story, only dogs tuned into higher auditory registers can hear it.

A lot of people have tried to push Gwynn's buttons--his dad, the Padres--but they don't get it. His dad wanted him to bail out of San Diego in 1993, when ownership conducted its seasonlong fire sale of high-priced talent. "This team isn't going anywhere," Charles told Tony. "Get out of Dodge!"

But Gwynn wouldn't. Sure, it would have been nice to go with a winner--he still remembers the first game of the 1984 World Series, when the home crowd gave the Padres a standing ovation for doing wind sprints--but how do you guarantee that? It always came back to the same things, the inviting gaps in Jack Murphy Stadium, the soft grass, the perfect weather, the low profile he enjoys in San Diego. "The thing is," he says, "I'm happy here. One of the reasons I've been successful is that I'm not bigger than big. There's not that much pressure, not that much hype here. We've got one newspaper that travels with the team. You've got to have time and room to work at your craft. They aren't that demanding in San Diego."

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