SAN DIEGO — Tony Gwynn could handle a bat like few other major leaguers, whether it was driving the ball through the “5.5 hole” between third base and shortstop or hitting a home run off the facade in Yankee Stadium in the World Series.
He was a craftsman at the plate, whose sweet left-handed swing made him one of baseball’s greatest hitters.
Gwynn loved San Diego. San Diego loved “Mr. Padre” right back.
Gwynn, a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest athletes in San Diego’s history, died Monday of oral cancer, a disease he attributed to years of chewing tobacco. He was 54.
“Our city is a little darker today without him but immeasurably better because of him,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a statement.
In a rarity in pro sports, Gwynn played his whole career with the Padres, choosing to stay in the city where he was a two-sport star in college, rather than leaving for bigger paychecks elsewhere. His terrific hand-eye co-ordination made him one of the game’s greatest pure hitters. He had 3,141 hits — 18th on the all-time list — a career .338 average and won eight batting titles to tie Honus Wagner’s NL record.
He struck out only 434 times in 9,288 career at-bats. He played in San Diego’s only two World Series — batting a combined .371 — and was a 15-time All-Star. He had a memorable home run in Game 1 of the 1998 World Series off fellow San Diegan David Wells, and scored the winning run in the 1994 All-Star Game despite a bum knee.
Gwynn never hit below .309 in a full season. He spread out his batting titles from 1984, when he batted .351, to 1997, when he hit .372.
Gwynn was hitting .394 when a players’ strike ended the 1994 season, denying him a shot at becoming the first player to hit .400 since San Diego native Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941.
Gwynn befriended Williams and the two loved to talk about hitting. Gwynn steadied Williams when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the 1999 All-Star Game at Boston’s Fenway Park.
Fellow Hall of Famer Greg Maddux tweeted, “Tony Gwynn was the best pure hitter I ever faced! Condolences to his family.”
Gwynn was known for his hearty laugh and warm personality. Every day at 4 p.m., Gwynn sat in the Padres’ dugout and talked baseball or anything else with the media.
Tim Flannery, who was teammates with Gwynn on the Padres’ 1984 World Series team and later was on San Diego’s coaching staff, said he’ll “remember the cackle to his laugh. He was always laughing, always talking, always happy.”
“The baseball world is going to miss one of the greats, and the world itself is going to miss one of the great men of mankind,” said Flannery, the San Francisco Giants’ third base coach. “He cared so much for other people. He had a work ethic unlike anybody else, and had a childlike demeanour of playing the game just because he loved it so much.”
Gwynn had been on a medical leave since late March from his job as baseball coach at San Diego State, his alma mater. He died at a hospital in suburban Poway, agent John Boggs said.
“He was in a tough battle and the thing I can critique is he’s definitely in a better place,” Boggs said. “He suffered a lot. He battled. That’s probably the best way I can describe his fight against this illness he had, and he was courageous until the end.”