Remembering Tony Gwynn and his ability to hit the best of the best

Tony Gwynn valued every one of his 3,141 hits.

The San Diego Padres Hall of Fame outfielder died five years ago today from complications of cancer.

Gwynn would be 59 years old if he were still alive. The 15-time All-Star and eight-time National League batting champion finished a 20-year career with a .338 career average and left a legacy as one of the consummate good guys in the sport.

He also frustrated the game’s best pitchers along the way.

FOSTER: Tony Gwynn’s greatness wasn’t just in the totals, but in the details

MLB Network analyst John Smoltz, a Hall of Fame pitcher with the Atlanta Braves, remembered one of those hits in a telecast the day after Gwynn died, which is part of a hidden layer in Gwynn’s remarkable legacy as a hitter.

Smoltz turned back to April 14, 1996, a game in which he had a no-hitter in the sixth inning when he faced Gwynn, who hit .353 that season and was in the middle of a run in which he won the batting title in four straight seasons.

“Tony Gwynn hit a ball to left field that Ryan (Klesko) tracked down and got in his glove and it dropped,” Smoltz said on a June 17, 2014, Fox Sports South telecast. “I was just sure it was an error. I guarantee it was an error. I turned around. Double. Of course, they weren’t going to change it. I lost the bid at a no hitter.”

Smoltz said he bumped into Gwynn at a card show later, and both remembered that moment.

“I would tell him all the time, ‘You think one less hit is going to matter in a Hall of Fame career?'” Smoltz said. “He used to laugh, because it was a hit, granted, to Tony Gwynn. Anybody else it would have been an error.”

That’s all part of a remarkable thread in Gwynn’s many hitting accomplishments. Consider his career numbers against Atlanta’s Big Three of Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.

Including the 1998 NLCS, which the Padres won in six games, Gwynn hit .303 (30 of 99) against Glavine, .415 (39 of 94) against Maddux and .444 (32 of 72) against Smoltz. In 287 career plate appearances against those three pitchers, Gwynn had just three strikeouts. Glavine had two. Smoltz had one.

“I tried everything,” Smoltz said on the telecast. “I even threw knuckleballs. I tried everything I could. … What he was so good at was he recognized anything you were trying to do. And he saw it quicker than anybody else.”

Gwynn used that advantage to pile up those batting titles, and he was hitting .394 when the strike-shortened 1994 season ended in mid-August. That’s the closest a player has come to hitting .400 since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. George Brett hit .390 over a full season in 1980.

Gwynn was known for that hitting, but his legacy endures as the working man’s hero in baseball. Smoltz said he enjoyed simply talking to Gwynn during those All-Star breaks. Gwynn didn’t keep his knowledge of hitting a secret. He loved to share that with everyone.

“I can’t think of a superstar, and maybe he was a little under-appreciated from a superstar standpoint because he wasn’t arrogant,” Smoltz said. “He was one of the class guys and great at what he did. Probably the single best hitter I’ve ever seen.”

The hardest part for Smoltz was knowing he couldn’t strike Gwynn out.

“He was a master at taking what you delivered and using it to his advantage,” Smoltz said. “If I could go back in time I and had to do all over again I would throw the pitch right down the middle.”

Even though nobody would ever dare throw a pitch down the middle to Gwynn.

You would not do that to someone who values every single hit.

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