The Full Tony
By Ron Donoho
Tony Gwynn is due. As in give an artist his due. But he is also due. His imminent arrival on campus at San Diego State University prompts assistant baseball coach Rusty Filter to rake the dirt base paths on the school’s new, first-class baseball field. Of course you tidy up when an appearance from The Man is nigh. Especially since SDSU’s one-year-old white-and-red brick edifice bears the name Tony Gwynn Stadium. An observer might even surmise two geezers in Aztec caps and blue overalls are repainting railings in the stands because the favorite son from the class of ’81 is on his way.
Filter pushes a batting cage up to home plate and saunters off to fetch a protective fence to be placed at the pitcher’s mound. Alone, with 34-ounce black Easton in hand, I dig in at the plate. The bat feels good. A light breeze is blowing out. Exactly 410 feet away is the green center-field fence. I take an easy swing. And another. Elbows up. Weight back. Feels good. I am ready to match swings with the master.
No, really. Tony Gwynn has agreed to give me one-on-one hitting instruction. This meeting is both exciting and intimidating. I played high school baseball. I worked as a sportswriter. Neither qualifies me for the Padres lineup card. But if you’re like me, a part of you wonders if—given the breaks —you could have played in the big leagues.
Some of us are haunted by the “what if” complex. Maybe we’re genius janitors (like the title character in Good Will Hunting), wasting our intellect shouting answers at the television during Jeopardy and Win Ben Stein’s Money. Or we’re undirected gym talent, breaking plateau after plateau on the Stairmaster then heading out for Happy Hour. But as the motion-picture industry teaches us, the Rocky Balboas can best the Apollo Creeds, demonstrable careers of exceptional skill notwithstanding. So then: What if?
Back to reality for a second. Rocky was a movie. You can’t KO Evander Holyfield. And you can’t theorize like Einstein; emote like DeNiro; sustain the high note like Streisand. And you definitely cannot hit the curveball—okay, I in particular cannot hit the curveball—like Tony Gwynn.
There, I’ve said it.
These facts I concede: Unlike the San Diego Padres’ veteran right fielder, I have not won eight National League batting titles. My name does not get mentioned in the same breath as Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner (well, once, but I don’t binge drink anymore). I’ve not batted over .300 for 15 straight seasons or averaged .368 since 1993 in major-league play. I am not 220 hits away from 3,000 for my professional career. Not once have I flirted with .400 for a season facing 90-mile-per-hour fastballs and off-the-table curves. And even though I make a living as a writer, a publishing company will never ask me to pen a book titled The Art of Hitting and make it available for $19.95 at Qualcomm Stadium on opening day.
Still, here I am, standing at home plate at Tony Gwynn Stadium, waiting for the Bard of Batting and imagining I’m going to impress him. I am deluded, bent in the belief Tony Gwynn will be wowed when I park a ball 360 feet down the right-field line. Damn straight. I do it regularly in National Adult Baseball Association over-30 “B” league baseball games.
Like Tony Gwynn, I’m a left-handed outfielder who bats third. Unlike the Sultan of Singles, I’ve conquered the concept of hitting .400. Last summer, I flirted with .500. Yeah, baby. Finished at .494. So bring on Tony Gwynn. I am Rocky. I am Roy Hobbs in The Natural. One workout and Tony Gwynn will tell Padres management to sign me. Oh, the fantasy is sweet. There’s no place like home plate, there’s no place like home plate...
Covered neck to ankle in a blue-and-white Nike sweatsuit, Tony Gwynn is standing 6 feet away in the batting cage. Maybe to you he’s Tony, or Gwynn; to me he’s the icon known as Tony Gwynn. He’s genial and unassuming, but up close, he’s intimidating and larger than life behind those mirrored shades.
His career has been like a four-star, two-thumbs-up independent movie. San Diego is his for the taking; yet no studio, if you will, has afforded his story blockbuster treatment. Instead of Titanic, think The Full Monty. If art truly imitated life, word of mouth would by now have earned The Full Tony full-blown national respect and admiration.
He is politely holding a tape recorder while I swing. After each ardent attempt, I look at his unflinching face. When he shakes his head, the flecks of gray stubble on his chin catch the sunlight. He instructs. He assesses. Basically, he hates what he sees.
Especially a tendency I have to shift all my weight forward before starting my arms in motion. He tells me to wait. I hear—but my limbs aren’t obeying.
Me: This seems really awkward.
Tony Gywnn: It seems awkward because you’ve done what you’ve done for such a long time. What you’ve done feels right to you, but it’s not. See—as soon as you pick up your front foot, you start to feel your weight going forward. Now, go on and pick your foot up. [I comply.] Okay, that was better. But it’s still going.
Me: Does it help to widen my stance?
T.G.: That’s what I do. But it works whether you’re a straight-up-and-down guy or a guy who’s really spread out. When you pick that front foot up and put it down, there shouldn’t be that much of a transfer of weight.
Me: What do you think about the guys who are so wide open?
T.G.: Even open is still the same thing. They start out, like [the Atlanta Braves’] Andres Gallaraga ... he starts out really open, but when the pitcher gets to that release point, he closes up. That foot lands in a balanced position, and there’s no transfer of weight. In the game of baseball, if your weight goes forward you’re out, ’cause you’re never gonna be able to hit the ball hard. Your hands are never gonna generate the kind of bat speed you need to do whatever it is you need to do.
T.G.: You might luck out and drop a grenade out there somewhere, but you’re never going to hit the ball hard. And so... [I try again.] No, that’s not what I said. The key is to get your front foot down, and keep your weight there ... now you’re in a balanced position. Now you’re in a hitting position.
Me: Do you have different swings for different situations?
T.G.: Sometimes. But slow down. I can’t get into it, because it’s too difficult. This is hard enough to explain. That’s really hard to explain.
Me: Yeah, but if you have two strikes on you...
T.G.: No, no.
Me: No—I have a swing off certain guys that I know will work because of their stuff, not because of ... you know, if I see a hole or something. It’s not like that. It’s just certain guys’ movement is a lot tougher than other guys’, and instead of taking a normal swing, I slash. I call it “slash.” I just try and get my body in a good position so I can take that swing.
Me: So you hit differently for different situations.
T.G.: Yeah, oh yeah. But the mechanics of it are the same, whether I’m slashing or taking my full hack or whatever. If I don’t get to the right position, I’m screwed...
Okay, now here’s a suggestion for you. Instead of putting the bulk of your weight on the back leg, let’s try and make it equal to start with, or get it close to being equal. Maybe there’s not an equal amount, but there’s similar pressure on the back as there is on the front. And all you’re going to work on before you take that swing is taking that front foot and getting it down, and getting your hands to a hitting position. You have to pick it up ... Okay ... Nope ... Okay, hold up.
Me: I feel really stupid.
T.G.: I know you do. It’s gonna feel uncomfortable, but you’ve been doing it wrong for a long time and if you want to correct it, here’s your chance.
In 1982—his first year with the Padres—Tony Gwynn hit .289. It was the only year he hit below .300. In 1983, Alicia Gwynn started videotaping all her husband’s at-bats. He began watching tape every day. A light went on. He’s extreme with videotaping now, taking two video machines with him on the road. One goes to the ballpark; the other stays in the hotel room. He takes every at-bat off the game tapes and dubs them on one of two cassettes—one marked Hits and one marked Suck. He looks at the Suck tape only once: bad karma to dwell on negatives. The Hits tape gets played over and over.
In the winter of 1983, Tony Gwynn teamed up with Bob Cluck as an instructor at the San Diego School of Baseball. La Mesa resident Cluck is pitching coach for the Oakland Athletics. (I asked him to help out during my batting lesson.) The two are business partners as well as friends. Still, friendship didn’t stop Cluck from getting thrown out of a Padres–A’s interleague game last season. As Cluck tells the story, Tony is at bat and takes a juicy strike right down the middle of the plate. The ump calls it a ball. Cluck goes to the mound and “casually” suggests the ump “call the same strike zone” for all players. The comment implies the man in blue is afraid to call a strike on Tony Gwynn because he’s Tony Gwynn. The ump takes offense at this accusation of favoritism and tosses Cluck from the game.
Mister Padre says his strike zone is the same as for every other Major League Baseball player, thank you very much. Oh, but the pitch over which Cluck argued, was ejected and that cost him a $250 fine? “It was a strike,” admits Tony Gwynn.
In 1997, he was the toughest batter in the majors to strike out (he fanned just once every 23.3 at-bats). He also batted .459 with runners in scoring position and .615 with the bases loaded. I ask where he learned to perform like this.
T.G.: Actually, Bob Cluck and the School of Baseball taught me more than anything. He wanted me to try and teach 8-year-olds how to hit. When I started, I’m saying all this stuff and it’s not making any sense to the kids, not making any sense to Bob and not making any sense to me. But from watching the kids hit and talking about what they needed to do, all of a sudden I started to understand certain things.
I had this thing where I would land on my heel, and when I started to swing, I’d spin right out of my swing. I was watching a kid hit one day, and he was doing the same thing. All of a sudden I caught myself saying ‘I do the same thing.’ Really—that’s where it all started for me. You know, I played my first two years in the big leagues and it was just on natural ability. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. [He hit .309 his second year on “natural ability.”]
But then I learned what it takes to be a consistent hitter. Not necessarily a .350 hitter [though he hit .351 his third year and won his first batting title] or a home-run hitter. All of a sudden I started to understand the mechanics. Because when I started working with the kids, I started paying attention to other guys, too. There’s a lot of guys in the big leagues who still get away with bad mechanics, and I can’t explain it. I can’t figure it out. For me, consistency has always been the most important thing in playing the game. I wanted to be consistent with my swing, my approach, my defense and all the other stuff. So I had to figure out a way to do what I do consistently, and that’s basically where it all started, at the school.
Me: So can I hit off Bob now?
T.G.: No. You’re not ready. Let’s get the [batting] tee.
Everyone says Tony Gwynn is fantastic to work with, always a pleasure. He stays late at events to sign autographs; he’s nice to kids; he’s nice to everybody. He doesn’t like to talk about his community efforts, but the Padres public relations staff reveals a list of more than two dozen organizations—Police Athletic Leagues, Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, Padres Scholars, to name a few—that benefit from his time, attention and cash.
“I know a lot of good baseball players,” says Cluck. Tony Gwynn is out of earshot, setting up the plastic tee at home plate. “But I’ve never met anybody like Tony in 31 years of baseball. There’s no persona just for the camera or the media. I’ve never seen him mistreat a kid, or a fan, or anyone. And it’s tough being him. In San Diego, he can’t take his kids to the mall. He can’t take his kids to the picture show because he gets mobbed and hassled all the time. But he’s always nice.”
Few would argue Cluck’s assessment of Tony Gwynn as the greatest sports hero San Diego has ever had. “I’ve lived here all my life,” says Cluck. “I was going to baseball games at Lane Field at the foot of Broadway when I was 8. I’m almost 52, and I’ve watched them all come through here, all the sports guys, in all sports. And this guy is the biggest hero we’ve ever had. I don’t know if he’ll hit .400. But for me, he’s a .600 hitter as a person.
“I don’t know if I’d be saying all this if he were standing right here. Yes, he’s a business partner and all that... But it’s hard for me to say some things like this to his face. Even though I mean them. I have told him a couple of times, though, how proud I am to be his friend.”
Tony Gwynn summons me. For the unenlightened, tee-ball is a game played by youngsters just getting used to this game. Batters swing at a ball placed on a belt-high plastic tube. I’m none too pleased. Aching to go deep off Cluck, now I have to play a 6-year-old’s game.
T.G.: When I’m hitting off the tee, what I like to do is break it down into two things. One, I want to take my stride and get my hands into the hitting position. And from this position, I want to take the knob of the bat right to the ball. When you’re working off the tee, you never have to swing hard, because the object is not to hit the ball over the fence, but just to work on your mechanics.
Me (incredulous): So you hit off a tee?
T.G.: Yeah, I pay $15 for a little rubber tee and $10 bucks on some Wiffle balls. I usually do this with Wiffle balls. If you hit a Wiffle ball, you can see if you hit it right—it’s like a knuckle ball; it doesn’t do anything. But if you go over the top, it’s got topspin; if you go underneath, it’s got backspin.
Tony Gwynn makes me hit two dozen baseballs to the opposite field. This is not my forte. I slap the tee several times. Overly conscious of bad form, I miss the ball a couple of other times. Finally—amid badgering from Mister Kind-Word-for-Everyone—some consistency creeps into my efforts.
Me: I guess it’s time now for Bob to pitch to me.
T.G.: No, it’s not. Hitting live right now is the worst thing you could do. What you need to do is get your bat, get in front of a mirror where you can see your feet and just think about taking the stride and not having your weight go forward. If you hit live you’d erase any good you did today.
T.G.: All the stuff we did would be out the window because you would revert to what you’ve done. Because you’ve probably had some success doing that. You’ve done it for so long. That’s why getting kids early is so important.
Me: But I’m pretty much a lost cause?
T.G.: As far as Major League Baseball is concerned, at 32, yeah. But for your 30-and-over league, if you worked hard at it, halfway into your next season you’d be good. But it depends on how hard you want to work at it. Because, ultimately, what you’ve done in the past is going to come up and bite you.
Me: Is my swing really that off?
T.G.: Actually, your swing is a lot like mine ... when I’m going bad.
Well, there it is. Roger Vaughan, who collaborated with Tony Gwynn on The Art of Hitting (being released in April by GT Publishing), claims reading the book can make anybody—even a 32-year-old tee-ball hacker—a better hitter.
“This book is not like The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams,” says Vaughan. “That was a very technical book.” Vaughan’s effort explores “the way Tony Gwynn approaches what he does. This book transcends baseball. In that we all in some way step up to the plate several times a day, the Gwynn book will make all of us better hitters.”
Since the Padres aren’t going to offer me a contract, I suppose I’ll have to settle for becoming a better transcendental hitter. Indeed, I believe the best of us—in any field or career—practice hard in anticipation of game situations, and take strength during battle remembering how hard we’ve practiced.
One other thought allows me to believe that my time with Tony Gwynn wasn’t for naught. Remember: The Master of Mechanics didn’t really learn about hitting until he started helping at the School of Baseball. He saw faults in others that allowed him to adjust his own swing. So now that he has a mental image of me at the plate, he ought never to slump again. When Tony Gwynn finally hits .400 this year and collects his ninth batting title, it’s because he’s not thinking of my swing. I’ve decided to believe that.