Giger: Watching Gwynn hit a true joy

With all due respect to Ted Williams, I believe Tony Gwynn is the best pure hitter to ever play baseball.

If you needed one hit – not a homer, just a good, old-fashioned base knock – and could pick any hitter who ever lived to step into the batter’s box, I’d take Gwynn, the silky smooth-swinging, beloved San Diego Padre who died Monday at age 54.

Of the myriad statistics one can point at to show his greatness, this one is my favorite: From age 35 in 1995 until he retired at 41 in 2001, Gwynn batted a staggering .350. It’s just insane to post that kind of average over a seven-year span in the modern era, and Gwynn did it during a stage when most guys are past their prime.

I’m 40 and very much guilty of showing bias toward athletes I’ve watched during my lifetime over stars of previous eras. The fact that Gwynn’s .338 career batting average is the highest of any player who debuted after World War II speaks volumes to how elite he was after hitting had become much more difficult.

No knock on Williams, who posted a .344 career average, but it’s hard for me to believe that he was facing anywhere near as good of pitching day in and day out during his era as Gwynn faced beginning his career in 1982. They didn’t have radar guns during Williams’ heyday, so for all we know the guys he faced had dead arms from throwing so many innings and weren’t topping 90 mph, compared to the wicked velocity and new pitches (split-finger fastball, cutter) that Gwynn had to face.

The Gwynn vs. Williams debate is six of one, half dozen of the other, really. It just comes down to personal preference. I probably watched Gwynn bat 500 times over the course of his career on TV – mostly against the Cubs or Braves – and still marvel at how easy he made it look doing the most difficult thing in all of sports.

Curve manager Carlos Garcia not only played against Gwynn during his days with the Pirates, he also briefly called the legendary hitter a teammate in 1999. Garcia finished his career playing a few games with the Padres that year and saw up close and personal why Gwynn was so good.

“I had the pleasure to know Tony, and he was one of the greatest hitters this game has,” Garcia recalled Monday. “He was a workaholic, always in the cages, he always was in the media room studying the pitchers.”

Gwynn always talked about hitting, Garcia added.

“You just can’t avoid hearing what he has to say and ask for advice here and there,” he said.

“One time I asked him, ‘Tony, how could you be successful hitting (with) how difficult it is for other players?” Garcia continued. “He said, you know what, he’s lucky. He closed his eyes and swung the bat and he might get a hit.”

Yeah right. That may have been the John Kruk approach – grip it and rip it – but for Gwynn, hitting was an art form. He used a smaller, lighter bat so he could have more control of it at the plate, and frankly, it’s amazing that more hitters don’t take that approach nowadays.

Like a machine, he could drill line drives anywhere he wanted, back in the days before defenses relied heavily on infield shifts. A shift wouldn’t have mattered anyway against Gwynn because he used every inch of the field.

“We played him straight up,” Garcia, who played second base for the Pirates in the 1990s, said. “We never tried the (shift) or anything like that. Basically the pitching plan for him was just throw the ball over the plate and let him make himself out.”

That strategy didn’t work too well, but neither did anything else.

Curve broadcaster Mike Passanisi interned with San Diego State media relations eight years ago and shared a brief yet telling encounter with Gwynn, the school’s baseball coach.

“I went over (to the stadium) and saw this guy stocking the soda machine, and I asked him if he needed help,” Passanisi said. “It was Gwynn stocking the machine himself. He said he didn’t need any help, but just real random that a hall of famer was stocking his own soda machine.”

Gwynn, according to all the wonderful tributes that came out Monday, was just a normal guy who loved to laugh, to tell stories, to mingle with fans.

But mostly, he loved hitting. He had it down to a science, and as a huge baseball fan my entire life, it was always a true joy watching his masterful skills swinging the bat.

Whether you think of Gwynn as a better pure hitter than Williams or vice versa, the sad truth is both legends are now gone, and it’s doubtful we’ll see anyone as good as those two ever again.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. Reach him at 949-7031 or @CoryGiger on Twitter.