In 1994, Tony Gwynn batted over .400 for most of the season, and every morning that summer I would open up the Sports section of the newspaper and check the box score to see how Gwynn had done the day before. He was on a tear heading into August, and many thought he might be the first person since Ted Williams in 1941 to crack the .400 batting average mark.
To me, the most important statistic in baseball was the batting average. It was the first thing I looked at when I checked out the stats on the back of a player’s baseball card. I would arrange my cards in my collection based on a player’s batting average. Home runs were overrated in my opinion. Home run hitters were guys seeking personal glory while the good hitters were more interested in team success. I followed all the prolific hitters. I knew of Rod Carew’s year in 1977 when he batted .388 and George Brett’s 1980 season when he batted .390.
I knew of all the seasons that Pete Rose had over 200 hits. For many years, Rose was by far my favorite player, but by 1990 his reputation was tarnished and all those baseball cards of his that I’d collected were now seemingly worthless.
Tony Gwynn kept my interest in baseball even after the black eye of the Pete Rose scandal. Gwynn was a good guy, loyal to his team, and a tremendous hitter.
1994 was destined to be the year someone would finally break the .400 mark. Although Gwynn repeatedly batted well over .300, never before had he gone so deep into the season hovering so close to .400. Then August 11th came and the baseball players announced they were going on strike. The season was over. I hated the player’s union and the owners for disrupting Gwynn’s glorious season. When Gwynn was unable to replicate his torrid pace the next year, I had nothing left to cheer for. I hated baseball. The strike had ruined everything.
The Sosa-McGwire summer of 1998 temporarily resurrected my fractured relationship with baseball as I began taking an interest in the type of player I had always detested. The home run hitter. These guys were hitting home runs at such an impressive rate that they captured the attention of the country. Baseball was back. Mark McGwire smashed Roger Maris’s record (as did Sammy Sosa), but when the bloated Barry Bonds surpassed the record in 2001, the excitement was missing. Everyone knew something was off. The subsequent and ongoing steroid scandal sunk baseball to a level lower than the strike-shortened season of 1994, and the inflated stats from 1998 onward were no longer of any interest to me since it was impossible to know which ones to believe.
The last time I believed in baseball was in 1994, during that unfinished season. Would Gwynn have done it? Would he have cracked .400? We’ll never know.
Tony Gwynn passed away on June 16th at the age of 54 after a battle with cancer. He didn’t get a chance to finish coaching his team at San Diego State University. He didn’t get a chance to see his son, Tony Gwynn, Jr. finish his own professional baseball career.
On Father’s day, the day before Tony Gwynn died, his son told a Philadelphia reporter about his father, “I always try to get in an I love you. For a while that was uncomfortable for me, I don’t know why. But since 2010, it hasn’t been uncomfortable. It’s something I want to make sure I get in because you never know what’s going to happen.”
There are several things that the baseball strike and cancer didn’t allow Tony Gwynn to finish, but nothing stopped him from achieving the ultimate victory in life: achieving a meaningful bond with his family before it’s too late.