I spent a lot of time reading patterns as a center fielder. Before every game, I had to know the tendencies of the opposing hitters, the ability of my pitcher to hit his spots, and weigh all kinds of environmental conditions that might influence the flight or roll of the ball -- and then I had to execute in real time.
When Tony Gwynn stepped into the batter's box, science did not matter. Spray charts were rendered useless, pitcher's intent was irrelevant. He ran the show. Defenders just had to react, pitchers had to hope.
If there was a hitter who played the game as if the ball were on a tee, it was Tony Gwynn. He was indefensible; he nullified the power of getting a good jump, which typically was based on knowing what a hitter might do with a particular pitch. Against most hitters, I could get a head start in a particular direction by the time the pitch was halfway to the hitter because I could see the pitch location and account for the predictability of the hitter's swing, but not with Gwynn. He could take a pitch and do anything with it, so most of the time you were left flat-footed and at his mercy.
He represents the lost art of pure contact. Not only was he nearly impossible to strike out (107 plate appearances against Greg Maddux, zero strikeouts), but he was almost equally impossible to walk. That means a pitcher had nowhere to go to avoid Gwynn's bat. You had to accept that he was going to put the ball in play.
Gwynn could wait until the last second and rifle the ball to the opposite field. And if you fell asleep and assumed he could not get to that inside pitch, Gwynn could put the ball into the right-field corner. It was as if the defense stood still, frozen in time until the next hitter.
He ended his career with a remarkable .338 career batting average, but he hardly fell off with age. At 41 years old, he posted a .324 average and still put the ball in play at a high rate. At 41 years old, I was happy not to pull my hamstring doing laundry.
He had a plan; he was a tactician. He peeled back the layers of a pitcher's strategy to fine detail, while enjoying and smiling through each and every unpredictable bounce of the game.
It is hard to be consistent in baseball. And to be consistently great and a step ahead of your opponent is otherworldly, especially when we consider the comfort today's hitters take in striking out and not making contact.
"Concentration is the ability to be blank in any given moment," he told me when I was with the Cubs in 1997. In that blank space, that blank state, Gwynn had laser focus. Not only did he have the requisite gift of exceptional hand-eye coordination and an infallible plan of attack, but he was also one of the mentally toughest players of his era. He could perform and not allow himself to be his own worst enemy. He could be blank when many others would have let self-doubt or overconfidence consume that void.
Gwynn had all the attributes of a dominant hitter. He could wait until the last second to snap his wrists and hands through the hitting zone. He could expand the zone in any direction and still be comfortable with outside pitches. He had great balance. His hands were always in the right place, the right position to get the barrel to the ball. Contact hitting is all about balance, hand-eye coordination, anticipation, patience and flat-out confidence. And he had it all, in great abundance.
Combine his innate, fierce competitiveness, his commitment to preparation and his will to engage the community of San Diego for a lifetime, and you have a unique package that is hard to achieve or even find in the game. He was also an ambassador for the game, sharing wisdom with all generations.
And he was able to do it at a hometown discount that paid great dividends for San Diego, all of baseball, and for Gwynn and his family. His inspiration propagated well beyond the limitations of geography. He always made contact, not just in the batter's box, but with players and fans of baseball, in a way that we will never forget and forever be touched.