“Pete Rose came up behind me,’’ Gwynn recalled. “They flashed up on the scoreboard that was my first big-league hit, and he said, ‘congratulations.’ Then he walked back toward first base, and when he got about a third of the way there, he turned around and said, ‘don’t try to catch me all in one day.'’’
In Gwynn’s last at-bat in that debut game, he singled to center field in the ninth inning for the first of many 2-for-4 nights. And when he got to first base, Rose had another message: “He said, ‘Geez, you’re making it look too easy’,’’ Gwynn said.
And for 20 more seasons, that’s exactly what Gwynn kept on doing. He never did quite catch Rose and his record hit total of 4,256, of course. But Gwynn left his own indelible mark on the National League over the next two decades: Eight batting titles, a .338 lifetime batting average, 3,141 hits, 318 stolen bases, 15 All-Star Game selections, seven Silver Slugger Awards, five Gold Glove Awards. Only Ty Cobb won more batting titles than Gwynn’s eight, a total also reached by Honus Wagner.
Four of Gwynn’s titles came in succession — 1994-1997 — when it seemed as if he was competing against a Colorado Rockies hitter every year. In 1997, he edged Colorado’s Larry Walker — .372 to .366 — as Walker fell six hits and 11 RBIs short of winning a Triple Crown in his Most Valuable Player Award season.
“He went 3-for-3 the first night, and I went 1-for-4, and to be honest, I thought I was done,’’ Gwynn said. “But I got six hits in the last two games, and was able to win it.
That was because Gwynn usually was so far ahead of everybody else. He simply was a hitting genius who also worked at it harder than anyone. Just ask Merv Rettenmund, the longtime Padres hitting coach.
“The most amazing thing I ever saw was the first time we faced Bret Saberhagen,’’ Rettenmund said. “And this was when Saberhagen was really dealing. In the meeting I had before the game, I just said, ‘get (the bat) down in the zone, and get it ready early. Meaning, my God, he throws hard, has great stuff, so start your swing really early.
“The first time up, Tony fouls off about six or seven fastballs; he’s a little late. And Saberhagen throws him a changeup, and he had a great changeup. And Tony just puts his (lead) foot down, slows down (his swing), and bang, base hit up the middle.
“He comes into the dugout after and says, ‘you’re right, his arm is golden. He throws as good as anyone I’ve ever seen velocity-wise. But you know what he’s going to do next time up? He’s going to start me off with a changeup.
“So the first pitch next time up is a fastball — 97 mph — and Tony lashes another single up the middle. So he comes back in the dugout, and I say, “Tony, I thought you said maybe a changeup, you know?’
“And he said, ‘I just saw that ball so good, I had to hit it.’
“Well, that doesn’t apply to somebody unless he is a freaky hitter. He could do stuff like that.’’
HBT: Carlos Ruiz was lifted from Sunday afternoon’s game against the Reds after straining his right hamstring while running the bases in the bottom of the second inning.
Taking a look at some of the greatest catchers off all time.