The Best Hitter Since Ted Williams

This title was actually the title of a Sports Illustrated article on Tony Gwynn from 1997. I still have the issue. It’s a sad day for San Diegans with the news of Gwynn’s death at 54. He was one of, if not the biggest, San Diego sports icon and you know he was a great guy because his opponents have nothing but nice things to say about him.

Even though he died young, his death wasn’t much of a surprise. Seeing his physique deteriorate throughout the 90s, it was obvious that he wasn’t taking care of himself. And his bout with cancer had everything to do with his use of chewing tobacco. Whenever someone dies, it’s only natural to think about their life. So I spent a few minutes today thinking about Tony Gwynn.

He was a really unique baseball player. He wasn’t known for his power, base running, or defense, but the guy mastered the art of making sound contact. He invented a term known as “the 5.5 hole” (the gap between the shortshop and third basemen). He made a living placing the ball right in between those two defenders and then walking to first base.

But it got me wondering what the mentality of Tony Gwynn must’ve been. One would think that a professional athlete would make every effort to stay in shape, but he didn’t. There must have been a very unique psychology at play. For whatever reason he couldn’t motivate himself to exercise, despite the obvious monetary carrot, so he decided to make himself the best person ever at hitting the ball in this one spot and made a career out of it. That was his way of adapting to his situation.

He also never left San Diego when he had opportunities to make more money in a bigger market. It’s likely he didn’t want to deal with all the extra stress in places like New York or Los Angeles. So what does he do after he retires? He coached at San Diego State University and did broadcast work for the San Diego Padres. He didn’t take a coaching or broadcast job elsewhere on a bigger stage, which again would have been more stressful.

Maybe not so coincidentally, another San Diego sports icon died recently and young, Junior Seau. Obviously, there are huge differences between their careers and deaths. But clearly, Seau had a lot of stress and demons to deal with since he committed suicide. Maybe the athletes that gravitate to a place like San Diego, have one thing in common. They are very stress prone and the only news coming out of San Diego is traffic and weather.

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