Tony Gwynn, the 5.5 Hole and a Mountain of Memories at SDSU
Notes from San Diego State's Tony Gwynn Shrine
I haven’t thought about Tony Gwynn for as long as I can remember. Occasionally I’d hear him doing color commentary on ESPN or Channel 4 and it would compel me to watch three-times more than I otherwise would have—a vestige of my earlier adulation. From the time I was eight until his retirement (2001), I was one of his passionate and unwavering fans. Being not only a lefty and an outfielder, but an avowed contact hitter, I naturally considered him my favorite player. It may have been some kind of cognitive blind spot on my part, but it seemed like every time he came to bat he got a hit. When he didn’t, especially if it was in a crucial spot, I felt acutely sorry—so many people like me were counting on him and I knew he was disappointed to let us down.
In the middle of June, I invited two friends—ex-little-leaguers and lapsed baseball fans—to come with me to the San Diego State University library for a retrospective exhibit on Gwynn, a new Hall of Famer and all-around good guy. We agreed on a noon launch, but Kevin dallied, and the leisurely hour and a half I had allotted for browsing was cut to a quick fifty-minute romp. On the way there, I tried to engage them with questions: How do you—hanging with only a desperate pinky finger onto the ledge of teenager-dom—now think of Tony Gwynn, a man whose career ended right around the time of my bar mitzvah? And is baseball enjoyed most intensely before the age of thirteen? They puzzled on this while I swerved across four lanes to catch the ramp to Interstate-8 East.
In the ambient drone of my car, periodically interrupted by the insistent alto voice of my navigational system, I reflected on the 5.5 hole. The 5.5 hole, so-called because it describes the patch of dirt between the third baseman (position five on the line-up card) and the shortstop (position six), is an unusual target for a lefty hitter. Anyone who’s played baseball, or simply swung a bat at a ball, knows it’s easier to get power when you “pull” the ball, that is, hit the ball to right field if you’re a lefty, and left field if you’re a righty. There’s a technical explanation for this, involving magical-sounding phrases like “the power V,” but the simplest explanation is that when you pull a ball, you’re swinging earlier, hitting it out in front of the plate, and this is more comfortable. To hit the opposite way you have to wait an agonizing extra split second, and hit the ball deeper in your stance—managing somehow to keep your wrists cocked, your back leg strong and your hips closed. Hitting well to the opposite field is the sign of a trained, disciplined hitter. Only a few extraordinary players—Jim Thome, Barry Bonds—have the power to hit a ball over the opposite-field fence, and announcers marvel when they do it, heaping praise on thick wrists and “Paul-Bunyan-like” forearms.
Though Gwynn was never a power hitter (his season high for home runs was 17), it’s still remarkable, and a testament to his selflessness, that he opted for so many single-base hits over the chance for doubles (though he hit plenty) or the occasional home run. The attraction of the 5.5 hole for a lefty is that most pitchers like to work the outside of the plate, knowing it will be more difficult for hitters to handle pitches there. Gwynn made the best of what was available. Rather than stubbornly try to pull outside pitches, a maneuver that tends to result in effete taps back to the pitcher and Louisville Sluggers snapped across the knee, Gwynn “went with” the pitch, slapping hard ground balls, and punching line drives into left field and acquiring a good portion of his 3,141 hits in the process.
On the advice of my friends, I drove up, down and around four levels of a parking structure near the library before finally conceding that spaces marked “Faculty Permit/SP 800” were not suddenly going to give way to an oasis of available parking. The San Diego State library’s vestibule is capped with a massive, spiraling, glass-paned dome that floods the entranceway with light and casts cross-hatched shadows on the walls beneath it. Down the marble stairs, and through a row of metal detectors, we came upon the first part of the Gwynn exhibit, located in the Donor Hall, a few steps from the circulation desk.
The exhibit consists of a dozen or so glass display cases and tables, stocked with photos, newspaper clippings and miscellany such as Gwynn’s first contract (about three inches high and completely illegible) and the Long Beach city council’s proclamation of Tony Gwynn Week (“Whereas whenever Mr. Gwynn comes to bat or makes a spectacular play, Long Beach is mentioned as his hometown, thus bringing positive attention to our growing metropolis”).
The displays are ordered chronologically, and touch upon different areas of Gwynn’s life. The first case features Little League and high school basketball photos, with young Tony sporting the biggest smile in each one. Next is the “college years” case, where I found Gwynn’s San Diego State basketball jersey and learned he was drafted by the NBA and Major League Baseball on the same day. The subsequent cases follow Gwynn through his early career, his prime (all 19 years of it) and into retirement. The items presented range from vaguely relevant (a license plate reading PADRE19) to laudatory (Baseball Writer’s “Good Guy of the Year” Award) to devotional (a handwritten poem of thanks for Gwynn’s staying in San Diego).
On one table, protected from intruding hands by a plastic window, is a spread of Gwynn’s instructional books and videos (one of which, Tony Gwynn’s 5 Keys to Hitting, I happily own). Other tables are devoted to Gwynn’s coaching career with the SDSU Aztecs, his community work through the Tony and Alicia Gwynn foundation (TAG), his baseball influences (Stan Musial and Ted Williams) and his family—which includes two major leaguers, his son Tony Gwynn Jr. and his brother ex-major leaguer Chris Gwynn—and his daughter, Anisha Nicole Gwynn, an aspiring R & B singer signed to Gwynn Family-owned Base Hit records.
We left the hall, went back up a flight of stairs, through a short hallway and took an elevator up to the Special Collections library. The batting title, one of Gwynn’s eight, is especially cool to see in person—an irregularly shaped slab of what looked to be Lucite. A silver bat with a plaque stood next to it, the Silver Slugger award, given to the best offensive player at each position. There’s also a Gold Glove award, which Gwynn earned five times in his career for being voted best defensive player at his position. I also found eighteen baseballs signed by members of the 3000-hit club. On one wall is a picture of Gwynn, and next to him a quote in response to news of his Hall of Fame nomination.
“Validation,” he says. “That’s the word I keep coming back to. I needed to do lots of what I did to have a chance. I got my chance. I was a good player. I knew my piece.”
I received a brief hitting lesson off the tee from Gwynn when I was nine years old, in attendance at an SDSU baseball camp. Later he signed a shirt, or a card (I don’t remember which), shook my hand and repeated the procedure for another 50 or so kids. That was my sole personal experience with the man, but I hear of other encounters, from friends and acquaintances . . . all conclude the man’s an excellent individual. Now, at nineteen, seeing a current photo of him—smiling easy, baseball cap on head, some grey in his beard—make me feel inexplicably secure. His image, even in a commercial, induces in me a brief and unspecific charitable impulse. And the exhibit helped me understand why: Gwynn’s team loyalty, his batting titles and his altruism. More than anything, the presentation—simple, tasteful, and occasionally impressive—made me nostalgic. It felt good to remember putting all the hope I could muster into one person, into one at-bat . . . and for that person to pull through so many times.
For more information about the exhibit, including exhibit hours, please call (619) 594-6791 or (619) 594-1645 or visit http://infodome.sdsu.edu/projects/gwynn.