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Mr. Late Night West Coast Start

Unless the San Diego Padres were in your direct line of sight, you tended to not talk about Tony Gwynn [1] when it came to the great players in the game in his era. He overlapped Schmidt and Murphy during the first segment of his two decades, Bonds and Griffey as he wound down. He wasn’t classically toolsy and he was rarely featured in prime time. He was perennially an All-Star but never an MVP. Yet when the Padres were in your line of sight, all you could think of was Tony Gwynn. He was gonna be coming up in the next inning and he was gonna get a hit. Even this past weekend, no more than vaguely aware of the rapidly deteriorating state of his health [2], I thought about Tony Gwynn when the Padres were at Citi Field. Gwynn was the Padres like Musial was the Cardinals, like Williams was the Red Sox. Except Cardinals fans and Red Sox fans usually had and eternally have others to whom to cling.

The San Diego Padres fans have Tony Gwynn. Thirteen years retired and he was still their biggest name. He was still who I thought of first if you said Padre to me. I don’t think I knew until yesterday that his nickname was actually Mr. Padre, but I’m not surprised.

From 1982 to 2001, you recognized the greatness of the hitter even if you probably had to be situated on the other side of the country and then nestled toward its bottom corner to be completely cognizant of the quality of the person [3]. People from San Diego [4] knew it. People who make their living in the game [5] knew it. For the rest of us, the greatness of the hitting and the sense that he seemed like an awfully nice guy would have to do.

Before reams of statistics were commonly available to the typical fan, I had access to what I believed to be thoroughly accurate information regarding the Hall of Fame hitting of Tony Gwynn. I knew, without needing to look it up, that he batted exactly .900 against the Mets. That’s nine hits in every ten at-bats. Of that figure, which I calculated during the back end of his lengthy prime, I was certain. Further, in every game the Mets played at Jack Murphy Stadium, Gwynn batted a thousand. He might have made an out at Shea. He might have made two. I doubt he made more.

You think I’m kidding. I’m serious. This is how I remember Tony Gwynn, who deserves to be talked about for the all-time great he was, but what a shame he’s being talked about [6] in the past-tense right now. Learning Tony Gwynn died yesterday was a shock. He was only 54. He was only playing, I could swear, a few years ago. And when he was, he was going four-for-four, perhaps five-for-five against a forlorn Met staff late at night on the West Coast.

If it was midnight and the Mets were in San Diego, Tony Gwynn was singling. Unless it was almost one in the morning. Then he was doubling. More than any Met opponent I can viscerally recall, Tony Gwynn always got a hit against the Mets. We say “always” out of frustration when we want others to know, with a slice of woe-is-us, that something never went well for our team. For Gwynn, “always,” as in “always got a hit against the Mets,” was literal.

Or as close to literal as possible.

From 1993 through 1998, spanning a period when the Mets were everything from historic embarrassments to legitimate contenders, Tony Gwynn’s always-ness was in full effect whenever we saw him. In a career in which Gwynn batted .338 overall, he hit .356 against the Mets. And for six years when chronology suggested he might be in decline, Gwynn ascended to a whole other plateau whenever he spotted blue and orange:

1993: 45 AB, 20 H
1994: 49 AB, 22 H
1995: 54 AB, 22 H
1996: 50 AB, 20 H
1997: 46 AB, 19 H
1998: 37 AB, 20 H

Across those six seasons, when Tony Gwynn was aging deep into his thirties, he hit .438 against Met pitching in 69 games. That’s about as many games as the Mets have played to date this season. Imagine somebody batting .438 from March 31 to the present.

Because he made his name in San Diego, Gywnn drew comparisons to native San Diegan Ted Williams [7]. It also didn’t hurt that he was the greatest hitter for average since Teddy Ballgame, who of course was the last man to hit over .400 for a season. No one’s come closer to Williams’s .406 from 1941 than Gwynn, who batted .394 in strike-shortened 1994. An average of .438, though, is beyond Ted Williams. When it came to torturing our team, it was the stuff of Stan Musial [8]. When the Mets were born, Stan the Man was on hand in the delivery room to spank them to the tune of .468 in 1962. One shudders to think what Gwynn would’ve done to that Original corps of Met hurlers. As it was, he went up against their 37th edition in 1998, encompassing a pretty decent bunch of arms, and batted .541.

Including, I’m certain, 1.000 at Jack Murphy Stadium after midnight.

You know how there are Met-killers you can’t or couldn’t stand? Did anybody feel that way about Tony Gwynn? Gwynn was so incredibly likable, never mind so incredibly astounding, that it never occurred to me to snarl in the slightest when he was due up. I wasn’t going to care for the immediate result as it affected the Mets’ chances of winning a particular ballgame, but what were you gonna do? He was Tony Gwynn. He hit Met pitching. He hit everybody’s pitching. If you were watching him hit, you were informed enough to understand it wasn’t worth getting mad at what was about to happen. If you were too young to have seen Williams or Musial, you were being treated to the contemporary iteration of their brand of immortality.

What, you were gonna get mad about that?