Like the rest of the baseball world, St. Louis was hit with a heavy heart upon the news of Tony Gwynn’s passing on Monday. One of the greatest hitters in the game, Gwynn was even better off the field.
“It’s a sad day for the game of baseball,” commented St. Louis Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny. “Always a big fan of Tony and how he went about playing the game. Just a great ambassador for the game of baseball. Got to spend a little bit of time with him and realize how a pro goes about playing this game.”
“Just a wonderful guy to be around,” agreed Ricky Horton. “He was superstar that never acted like one. He was a very down to earth guy, very chatty with the opposing team in a friendly way. You knew he was a great competitor. And all the on the field stuff—he was just terrific with the bat. He was born to hit. He was an incredible two-strike hitter—he knew the plate better than anybody in that era.”
“You just loved being around Tony,” continued Horton. “I never met anybody who ever said anything bad about Tony Gwynn.”
Gwyn was 54 years old and had been on medical leave as the head baseball coach at San Diego State since March as he recovered from cancer treatment.
“He could take just about any pitch and shoot it over the infield wherever he wanted to,” added Matheny. “There were a couple of times we tried to capitalize on the inside part of the plate and he had more power than I think anybody understood. He just decided to use it when he wanted to, but just a great hitter. Very, very difficult to pitch against when you have that kind of hand-eye coordination, that kind of bat speed, and that kind of approach. He made a great, great mark on this game.”
Cal Eldred remembers his excitement getting to pitch against Tony Gwynn for the first time.
“I couldn’t help it because obviously Tony had played a few years when I was in high school and in college,” remembered Eldred. “You knew his reputation right away. That’s what actually went through my brain when I saw him step in the batter’s box. Did we have a little pregame meeting as to how to throw to him—we did. But for me, when it came to facing a guy like him—I thought it was an honor. I thought it was something cool that you have. It’s an achievement to be able to face somebody like that…he had achieved so much, I felt like it was an accomplishment to have the opportunity to face him.”
Eldred yielded one hit in the three at-bats he faced Gwynn and recalled a theory on how to approach Gwynn—throw it right down the middle.
“If it’s down the middle, he doesn’t know whether to pull it or hit it the other way so maybe he’ll make a mistake and pop it up or hit a weak ground ball.”
“We even tried telling him what was coming, maybe thinking that would help,” shared Matheny. “The guy was going to get his hits, that’s all there was to it. I remember being in a meeting, we had some of our pitchers…they thought that was the best way. Throw it middle-middle, half as hard as you can and hope for the best because your best stuff is not good enough to get him out.”
“I understand that was a theory—I never tried it, maybe I should’ve,” said Horton, who gave up 10 hits in 25 at-bats to Gwynn.
“I just kind of tried to go in and out on him and hope he was guessing wrong. And it really didn’t make any difference because I didn’t throw hard enough to really fool him and he had the ability to—really like no player that I’ve seen before or since take a pitcher’s best pitch and just waste it. Just flip it over the opposing dugout and waste what the pitcher’s best was and then come back and wait for you to make a mistake.”
“He was frustrating to pitch to in that regard because…you didn’t fear him in the classic sense of pitching to a Mike Schmidt or an Andre Dawson from that era who were imposing guys at the plate but you just, you were so befuddled because you just weren’t sure. Good off-speed hitter, good fastball hitter, good in-out-up-down—it just didn’t matter. He was just the consummate hitter.”
And again, how Gwynn conducted himself was just as impressive.
In 1994, as Gwynn was in the midst of batting .394 he still had the time to sit with a then rookie reporter when the San Diego Padres were in St. Louis. Approachable, gracious, happy to talk baseball—Gwynn was beyond a true professional. It was appreciated then and even more so now. Thank you, Tony.
Ricky Horton on Tony Gwynn:
photo credit: Stephen Dunn/Allsport