Since Williams, no greater hitter than Gwynn

Tony Gwynn loved hitting so much, he visited the Hillerich & Bradsby factory more than once so he could handpick the billets of wood for his bats. His bats were his magic wands, and they had to feel right in those little hands of his. His bats were the same length and weight as those of teammate Scott Livingstone.

"If I close my eyes," Gwynn said, "and put my bat in one hand and Scott's in the other, I'll tell you which bat is mine every time."

He took the test. He got it right every time.

"Stan Musial told me he could do the same thing," Gwynn said. "Hitters always know the feel."

Tony Gwynn was a master craftsman. No one understood the art of hitting better than he did. He knew his swing, the opposing pitcher, the home-plate umpire, the defense, the elements and the contours of every field better than anyone. He hit off a tee more than Vijay Singh. He looked at more film than Roger Ebert. When outfielder Al Martin joined the Padres late in his career, Martin explained that after opening his stance, he started to hit the ball to the opposite field with power, but he didn't know why. "I know why," said Gwynn, who took Martin to the batting cage and showed him. He knew Martin's swing better than Martin did.

That's why, on Jan. 9, Gwynn will be voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. That's why he is the greatest player in the history of the San Diego Padres, for whom No. 19 secured right field for 20 years.

Gwynn is the best hitter since Ted Williams. His .338 average is the 17th best all-time; he and Williams are the only ones of that 17 to play after 1938. Gwynn batted .394 in 1994, but he didn't get the chance to hit .400 because the season ended in August with a players' strike. During 1993-1997, Gwynn hit .368 -- not even Williams hit that high for any five-year period. Gwynn won eight batting titles; only Ty Cobb won more. Gwynn hit .300 for 19 consecutive years; only Cobb had a longer streak.

Gwynn didn't hit for power as the great Williams did, but no one of his era was better at hitting a ball to an area. When asked where he wanted his 3,000th hit to go, Gwynn said it should be a hard ground ball between shortstop and third base, "the 5.5 hole," as he called it. On the tongue of his spikes, he wrote 5.5 to always remember where he made a living.

"As it turned out," Gwynn said, laughing, "[No.] 3,000 was a broken-bat single over the second baseman's head."

Gwynn could place the ball because he had such great control of his bat, which was as small as anyone used during his 20-year career. For first 12 years of his career, he used a 32½-inch, 31-ounce bat. For the final eight years, he used a 33-inch, 30½-ounce bat. A bat that small and light allowed Gwynn to wait the maximum amount of time before committing to his swing. By waiting as long as possible, he rarely got caught on his front foot and rarely got fooled by a pitch. That was Gywnn's greatest strength at the plate: his patience, his ability to allow the ball to travel in the strike zone before starting his swing. He taught that approach to a former teammate, Greg Vaughn. Gwynn set up a batting tee near the back of home plate and told Vaughn to try hitting the ball when it was that deep in the strike zone.

"I can't get to that ball," Vaughn told him. "It's too deep."

"No, it's not," Gwynn said.

Vaughn found he could get to that ball. Soon, he was driving that pitch to the opposite field with authority. In 1998, thanks in part to Gwynn, Vaughn hit 50 home runs for the Padres.

Gwynn loved his bats. He said they were his most personal baseball items, even more personal than his glove. In 1994, the year he hit .394, he used one bat for most of the season, an astonishing feat given that bats are broken today more than ever (hitters use as small and as light a bat as possible, with a skinny handle and fat barrel; Pete Incaviglia once broke 144 bats in one season because he simply overpowered his own bats). Gwynn didn't use his favorite bat against really tough left-handed pitchers, such as Jeff Fassero, who might get the split-fingered fastball inside on him, and perhaps break his bat.

"I called it 'Seven Grains of Pain' because it was a seven-grain bat," Gwynn said. "The next spring training, I was really struggling, so I brought that bat out again. And I broke it in practice taking BP against Rob Picciolo [the Padres' first-base coach]. I broke it on Field 7."

Gwynn has the smallest hands of any great hitter you've ever seen. "I can't even palm a basketball," said Gwynn, who was a terrific point guard at San Diego State. But those little, stubby hands were so fast, and so skilled, he could just flick the ball wherever he wanted.

"From playing basketball, my hands and wrists were very strong from dribbling a ball so much," he said. "But my hands are so small, I had to use a thin-handled bat because I couldn't use a thick-handled bat."

Gwynn also could see the ball better than any hitter of his time. And he could see things that other hitters couldn't. Shane Reynolds of the Astros had an excellent split-fingered fastball, but Gwynn knew it was coming because he could see Reynolds' grip in his glove as he delivered the ball. He would explain to teammates what he was seeing, but, Gwynn said, "They couldn't see it." At the batting cage during the 1998 World Series against the Yankees, Gwynn, then 38 years old, complained to a writer that "I can't see like I used to."

"So," the writer said, "what is your vision now, 20-20?"

"No," Gwynn said, "it's 20-15. But I still can't see like I used to."

Those eyes watched film constantly. No hitter studied opposing pitchers more than Gwynn. He would take his film library on the road and watch in his hotel room.

"We were the last team to get a video guy," said Gwynn. "Now guys can get all their at-bats on their iPods. I started watching video in 1982. I think I was the first guy to do that. I had my wife videotape games when I was on the road. I'd come home and watch my at-bats. I thought 'this is something that could work.' I really had to pay attention because I couldn't rely on talent alone. I'd carry tapes on the road with me in my suitcase. They called me Captain Video."

Consequently, Gwynn had a pretty good idea what was coming, which is why, when teammates would steal a sign from the catcher and relay to Gwynn what was coming, he didn't want to know. "What if they're wrong?" he said. Gwynn trusted no one but himself because ultimately no one was smarter than him.

"I hated striking out. I'd rather ground back to the pitcher. I always thought that they put the bat in your hand for a reason: to make contact with the ball."
-- Tony Gwynn

Because of his small bat, his great hands and his sharp eye, Gwynn rarely struck out. In this era in which 75 batters strike out 100 times in a season, Gwynn never struck out more than 40 times in any season -- Preston Wilson once struck out that many times in a single April. "The year I struck out 40 times, I hated it," Gwynn said. "There were years I struck out 15 or 19 times."

Gwynn struck out only 434 times in 20 years; Cincinnati's Adam Dunn struck out 434 times in 2½ seasons. "I hated striking out," Gwynn said. "I'd rather ground back to the pitcher. I always thought that they put the bat in your hand for a reason: to make contact with the ball."

He had 233 three-hit games in his career, and only one three-strikeout game. "It was against Bob Welch," Gwynn said. "He actually struck me out four times, but I didn't check my swing, and the ump didn't call it."

But Gwynn was more than just a hitter. He won five Gold Gloves. Few right fielders have ever gone to the line, cut the ball off and thrown to second as quickly and efficiently as Gwynn (on Aug. 27, 1986, he threw out three Mets from right field in the first five innings of a game). That's partly because he worked at it; he constantly checked the walls in right field in opposing ballparks to see how the ball bounced off them. And he could play defense because he could really run. He stole 318 bases in his career, including 56 in 1987. Only four players in history had 300 steals and a career batting average of at least .338: Gwynn, Cobb, Tris Speaker and Nap Lajoie. Of those four, Gwynn is the only one to have played in the last 80 years.

But in the end, Gwynn will be remembered mostly because of his hitting. He finished with 3,141 hits, the 17th most of all time. His first came in 1982, a double off Sid Monge. When Gwynn arrived at second base, he was greeted by Phillies first baseman Pete Rose, who was trailing on the play. Rose told Gwynn, "Hey, don't pass me in one night, kid."

Now that kid is going to the Hall of Fame. When he makes his speech in Cooperstown, his son, Anthony, a fleet outfielder with the Milwaukee Brewers, surely will be in the audience.

"You know," Gwynn said with a laugh, "he uses the exact same size bat that I used. And I can close my eyes and pick up his bat, and pick up my bat, and I'll pick mine out every time."

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.