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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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From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, September 18, 1995

TONY GWYNN DOESN'T BRAG ON MUCH, EXCEPT MAYBE his mother's cooking. Even at that, he doesn't pull for the fences. That is, it's not a matter of Vendella Gwynn's being the best cook in the world, only that she bakes the best pecan pie in the state of California. See, even bragging-wise, he only aims to make contact. � So, with his San Diego Padres on a trip to Los Angeles, Gwynn prepared to deliver. He phoned his mom in nearby Long Beach, said he had bragged on her pies and asked her to bake a pair for the postgame spread. Vendella was furious at her son's presumption. "I could bake them," she said to him, seething, "but what if they're no good? You're just going to embarrass me."

Furious or not, she baked a pair of pecan pies, and they were added to the postgame smorgasbord. Now, anybody who has ever seen baseball players attack a spread is reminded anew how recently we've been promoted from the animal kingdom. The pies were consumed just like that, without anyone pronouncing any more judgment than one of those artery-clearing thumps to the chest.

As with any postgame meal, it was probably enough that no one got hurt, and all Gwynn could do afterward was examine the empty pie tins and report to his mother that when all was said and done, nobody got embarrassed that he could tell.

A typical Gwynn family production, when you think about it: the pie story as defining metaphor. Like his mom, Gwynn is motivated by fear of failure, produces small events in a reliable fashion and is, despite 14 seasons of 1-for-3 work at the plate, as humble and as taken for granted as a pecan pie in a postgame spread.

Tony Gwynn is talking, talking, talking. He is a .400 talker, the only one in baseball. His wife, Alicia, the school chum he only later recognized as something more than a batting-practice pitcher, says the man doesn't make two peeps when he's at home. "Oh, he might come out of the game room all of a sudden and say, 'What's for dinner?'" she reports. But sitting in front of his cubicle, six hours before a game, rolling a bat in his hands, he won't shut up, not when it comes to baseball. You can locate him from around corners, since all his stories end on a high-pitched squeak.

" Mike Schmidt once said, 'You can always teach a guy to hit .300,'" Gwynn begins, "'but you can't teach him how to hit it out of a ballpark.'" He rolls the bat. "People want to see home runs. At first I was annoyed by that. But now I see, basically, he's right. Took me a long time to grasp it. I mean, I hit .370 in 1987, and I finished eighth in the MVP voting. I couldn't understand that then. Last year I hit .394, and I finished seventh. I'm getting the picture. But it annoyed me for a long time."

If no longer annoyed, he remains defensive. The motives of a contact hitter, even one of the best ever to play the game, are always suspect. "One thing I've found is that we're called selfish more than anybody else," he says. "It's happened to me. It's happened to every contact hitter who's played the game. It's just a by-product of what we do. Anytime you're trying to do something perfect, so focused on what you do--well, it's not always pretty."

Another story, nonbakery division: In 1991 Gwynn was cruising toward his fifth batting title, the one that would have separated him from Bill Madlock and Roberto Clemente. Batting titles were not then, or ever, a matter of casual interest to the Gwynns.

Gwynn was batting .337, even on an increasingly bad left wheel, playing for a typically mediocre San Diego team. His title, if properly protected, was in the bag. And because knee surgery was inevitable, his father, Charles, suggested--insisted--that Gwynn retire for the season. "You're not helping yourself, you're not helping your team," Charles barked at him. "Sit down and win your title."

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