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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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So, early in 1994, only months after his father died of heart problems, Gwynn did what he has always done. After he was assured by new ownership that the Padres did indeed intend to compete, he told them he preferred to remain in San Diego. Prompted by the Padres' suggestion of a contract extension, Gwynn told his longtime agent, John Boggs, to negotiate one. Boggs, whose client was still under contract for one more year at $4 million and who was without any leverage whatsoever, went in for a deal. "He's a little difficult to represent," Boggs says, laughing.

"I would take less to stay here," Gwynn says, "and the Padres knew it. They could take advantage of it--they should take advantage of it--and they did." Still, the Padres came through with $4 million a year through 1997, with an option year and a bonus clause here and there. "They could have had me for $3 million," Gwynn admits. "For what I do?"--he shrugs--"I'm happy."

See, the Padres don't understand him either. Here's one more Gwynn story from the nonbakery division: In 1986, in a game at Montreal, Gwynn had just one hit in what would be a 10--1 blowout. Frustrating, of course. But then the Expos, out of pitchers, brought in Vance Law from second base to throw to Gwynn, whose frustration went straight to humiliation when he grounded back to second. "It's still on my mind," he says. People think rich contracts drive him? Batting titles? "Vance Law," he says. "You probably don't know him. But I carry that at bat around every day."

The strike-shortened season of '94 was tragic for the numbers left hanging in the ether of uncompleted history: Matt Williams's 43 home runs, Gwynn's .394. Had the season played out, who knows what records might have been broken? You can't project those kinds of things: A sweet stroke can depart just like that. But it is fair to say that as the season was nearing its climax, Tony Gwynn was a tough out. And he was looking forward to a run at .400 and the kind of once-in-a-lifetime stretch when the media descend for a final look-see at one of those seminal events they are obliged to cover en masse.

"There was no pressure to that point," Gwynn says of the season's premature ending on Aug. 12. "The pressure would have come in September. I had talked to Rod Carew and George Brett, asked what it was like to make a run at .400. Both said it was unbelievable, so tough to go about your business. Now, I'm not a Pete Rose, a guy who thrives on that kind of attention. But I kind of wanted to go through it, to get a taste of it. You don't really know what you're made of until you do. I don't think I'd have been destroyed by it, but you can't really say, can you?"

Well, yes, you can. Gwynn would hardly have been destroyed by it. Even though he remains amazed by big league attention--after a road trip, he will marvel at the "deluge" of publicity that he attracts--he deflects it more naturally than he knows. One imagines him, postgame, entertaining the press at his cubicle, rolling his bat in his hands. "I go 4 for 5," he might say, "average goes up one point! One point!" You can hear the squeak.

Still, it didn't happen, did it? The best that came of the whole affair was a summons from Ted Williams himself, an invite to his museum in Florida during the winter to talk baseball. Williams, among other things, is Gwynn's favorite author. Gwynn first got a copy of Williams's 1971 bible, The Science of Hitting, while he was attending San Diego State. He has marked it up like a guy researching a Ph.D. Passages are highlighted, margins are filled with notes. The cover page, which shows a strike zone filled with baseballs, each of them with an average attached ( Williams's estimate of a batter's stats if he hit pitches only in that area), has been committed to memory. Gwynn rereads it two or three times a year. "What I should do," he says, "is bring it with me on road trips."

Rereading the book before his .394 season is what started him thinking about turning on the inside pitch a bit more instead of waiting to slap the outside pitch, his bread and butter. "Worked," he says. "Had a chance to drive in 90 runs."

The meeting with Williams was a lifetime highlight, although as usual, Gwynn was put on the defensive. "We talked for half an hour," Gwynn says, "and I never got a word in edgewise. Anyway, he's telling me how I 'block the ball off'"--that is, throwing the bat in front of the ball, which often shoots it to leftfield, instead of taking a hefty cut. "He says, 'I don't know what you call it, I call it blocking it off. And I'm one who believes that history is made from the ball inside.' I start laughing, but then I think he's right," Gwynn says. "The guys you think about-- Henry Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt--hit the inside pitch. And he says to me, 'Big as you are'"-- Gwynn is 5'11", 215 pounds--"'you should be hitting the ball out.' I said, 'Wait a minute, you're getting into territory that's been a big problem for me. No question, for most people, you're right. But if you don't do it well, why focus on it?' We went around and around on that. Got into it a little bit."

This insistence on home runs will always remain troublesome. Not that Gwynn, who has hit a mere 86 home runs in his career, doesn't acknowledge the charisma of the home run hitter. But that persona just isn't him. "Those guys strike out 100 times a year," he says. "I couldn't live with that. They've got to let it go to do what they do, swing big, can't be afraid to fail. That's not me. I've struck out 14 times this year, and I didn't enjoy that. You know what I was thinking in the All-Star Game, up against [ Seattle Mariners fastballer] Randy Johnson? Don't strike out. Get the barrel on the ball. I flied out, wasn't very productive, but a moral victory for me. Type of guy I am, I guess."

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