Baseball was not a better place just because of Tony Gwynn’s abundant hitting talent. There have been many masterful hitters through the ages, Ty Cobb (.367 lifetime) at the top, and our own Ted Williams (.344) slotting in at No. 7 on the career batting average list.
Gwynn, who died Monday at age 54, is No. 18 in baseball’s all-time order. Mr. Padre hit .338 over his 20 seasons with San Diego, with 763 extra-base hits grouped in among his total of 3,141. He could hit for power, but he was, by design and determination, a contact hitter with a quick, silken lefthanded swing that he used to smack balls deftly, almost metronomically, through what he called “the 5.5 hole’’ between third and short.
No doubt, Gwynn will be remembered most for those numbers, his sharp-eyed hitting acumen. More than any game, baseball defines a man by his stats. But just as Cobb left behind an everlasting, shall we say, “prickly” legacy, Gwynn hopefully will be remembered also for the perpetual joy he exuded on the field. Few were his equal in smile stats, though Twins fans might claim the ebullient Kirby Puckett gave Gwynn a real run in the “embraceable” category during their era on the diamond.
Someone with a PhD in baseball analytics no doubt will shred my assertion about both these guys, deny me my inalienable right to say I loved how they played, how they made me feel. Such is analytics. I really didn’t feel good, they’ll say, because I lack the intellectual capacity to understand the math that quantifies a player’s energy, personality, sheer being. They’ll tell me it was really Wade Boggs who made me feel good about baseball, even though he never did, especially when he was hitting .300-plus with the Yankees.
But that’s me. We all have our stuff. As I’ve noted in this space before, my mother developed this thing for Jose Canseco late in her life. I was appalled. She thought he was great. I knocked that down, not on analytics, but on the fact that he had muscles bulging like so many sacks of doorknobs out of weird places, and he blinked a lot. I told her I thought he was dirtier than a used syringe. She loved her some Jose. I learned to shut up.
It’s a fun exercise, to ponder the names of ballplayers whose personality exuded joy, whose enthusiasm on the field transmitted directly into the stands or through the TV cable. I suggest you try it. I did it last week in light of Gwynn’s death and the names that immediately popped into my mind were Manny Sanguillen, Roberto Clemente, Mark Fidrych, and Gwynn. Man, were they fun to watch.
I came up with more names, but it took a bit of thought. Recalling joy sometimes requires work, especially in the media business, in which feeling good and saying nice things about people leads to compulsive self-loathing.
Some of the other names I came up with were Puckett, Willie Stargell, Willie Mays, Tug McGraw, and even Pete Rose. With Rose, though, I had to keep rethinking it, and not really because of his gambling imbroglio and his subsequent banishment to baseball’s badlands. How could one not marvel at his hitting talent and his unbridled Charlie Hustleism? Yet for all that, I kept asking myself if I felt joy from Rose’s game. Which led me to ponder joy in all its shapes and forms, which led me to wonder if I’m going to get my man card pulled for pondering such a thing.
So I kept Rose on my list, with an asterisk, which in itself gave me a laugh.
Bill Lee definitely had a joy in his game, though it was lost on Don Zimmer, which ultimately landed Lee in Montreal for the bundle of happiness that was Stan Papi.
Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey made my list, not for his day-to-day play, but for his entertaining antics during rain delays. Amid a downpour, Dempsey would swagger up to home plate, with towels stuffed in his shirt for cartoonish girth, then in Max Patkin fashion mimic an inside-the-park homer, finishing off with a big, splashy bellyslide into home. Dempsey, a man with a .233 lifetime average and a .400 sense of humor.
No one has continued Dempsey’s act in today’s game.
“No,’’ said Globe baseball impresario Nick Cafardo, “I think guys would be fined.’’
Sadly, Gwynn’s death is a sober reminder, too, of the perils of smokeless tobacco. That also must be part of his legacy, in which of course there is no humor, no joy. If there is a positive to extract from it, it’s that perhaps it might dissuade current players and future big leaguers, especially teens and preteens, from chewing or dipping.
Gwynn was a “dipper” throughout his pro career, beginning at age 21 in the minors, constantly playing the game with a chunk of ground tobacco tucked somewhere in his mouth. He died of oral cancer, specifically of the salivary gland, and in recent years identified dipping as the cause. In 1997, he underwent his first surgeries for the removal of noncancerous growths from his parotid (salivary) gland, which proved to be a precursor to cancer in that same spot diagnosed in 2010, leading to more surgery, including removal of both his lymph nodes.
Twenty years ago, Joe Garagiola Sr. joined with America’s Fund for Dental Education (today Chicago-based oralhealth.org) to start the National Spit Tobacco Education Program (NSTEP). Yes, there is such thing. Baseball’s decades-old tobacco addiction and the oral cancers he saw it cause provoked Garagiola to act. Per oralhealth.org, noting a report by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, those who use “spit tobacco” have an 80 percent greater chance of developing oral cancer than nonusers.
Here’s hoping fewer kids, ballplayers or not, get hooked on tobacco in all its addictive shapes and forms. Each year in the United States, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 30,000 men and women are diagnosed with mouth and throat cancers, claiming approximately 8,000 lives annually.
Last week, cancer took Anthony Keith “Tony” Gwynn Sr., a man whose bat was constantly on fire, and whose game and spirit spread joy throughout the game. Those people are few. We need more of them. And we need them to stick around longer.