July 17, 1998
By Greg Shea
Fans are flocking to San Diego Padres games to see the game’s most unbelievable, most incomprehensible sight. It is so shocking, it has to be seen to be believed.
The word is getting out. Or more to the point, Tony Gwynn is getting out.
When you’re the greatest hitter of the modern era, and in a slump, it’s more than big news. It becomes a freak show, an oddity, a curiosity. It’s Annie Leibovitz struggling to load film, Anthony Hopkins forgetting his lines, James Earl Jones cracking his voice.
It’s hard to believe, but Gwynn went 19 at-bats without a hit. It was the longest period of his career without a bingo. He ended the misery Tuesday with a second-inning single off Colorado pitcher Darryl Kile. Yet this isn’t an all-of-a-sudden phenomenon. For a career .338 hitter, Gwynn is hitting only .223 in the last month, covering 26 games. He is hitting .146 in July, a paltry 6-for-41.
And Gwynn admitted this week that his confidence was shattered by the 0-for-19 slide.
“I know that sounds strange from a guy who’s won eight batting titles and is coming up on 2,900 hits,” Gwynn told the AP, “but confidence was slipping through the windows, man. It was gone.”
It was an honest admission from one of the game’s great ambassadors. Through all his accomplishments, Gwynn has remained the game’s humble superstar. Now, he’s simply humbled.
“Right now, it’s a tough time, man,” Gwynn said. “I’m hitting the ball good, and I keep coming back to the dugout shaking my head and thinking, ‘Hey, what do I have to do?”‘
Gwynn has eight batting titles, six years with over 200 hits, 15 seasons of hitting over .300. Throw an air molecule at him, and he’ll knock the carbon dioxide into right field for a base hit.
Yet suddenly his vision is blurry, his bat slow.
“I guess it’s a credit to how good he is,” Padres manager Bruce Bochy said. “He hits a little skid and it’s headline news. Like anything, everybody on our team’s going to have their rough moments, and he’s showing that he’s human right now.”
Humans are slow to realize greatness, until it fades away. Maybe Gwynn has lost a milli-second off his swing, maybe his reflexes are fading, maybe his hand-eye is not so coordinated.
Then again, maybe this is all a mirage. Maybe this is Gwynn’s Frank Sinatra hour. Maybe he’ll rise to the stage, with a little gray in his hair, a little weight on his stomach and do it his way one more time for the rest of the season.
Either way, he’s served notice. He’s slipping a little.
But he’s still the greatest hitter of this generation. And the greatest hitter of this generation shouldn’t walk down the street with his head down.
So maybe the next time you see Tony Gwynn, you won’t yawn. Maybe the next time you see Tony Gwynn, you’ll remember the year he hit .394. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find your hands out of your pockets. Maybe you’ll jump out of your seat to give a little pre-Cooperstown lift for one of the good guys.
And maybe Gwynn will pull out of his haze. Maybe he just needs to know we’re there for him.
He needn’t slump alone.
Copyright Real Fans, Inc., 1998.