07/05/2002 6:58 pm ET
A special bond between hitters
By John Schlegel / MLB.com
Tony Gwynn has been called the greatest hitter since Ted Williams, and like Williams he has left an indelible mark on San Diego that goes beyond his baseball accomplishments.
But Gwynn definitely knew about Ted Williams before he'd ever started his San Diego Padres career, which eventually saw him win eight National League batting titles.
Growing up in Long Beach, Gwynn was well aware of Williams, thanks to Charles Gwynn Sr. -- Gwynn's father.
"When I was a kid, man, my dad used to buy me the Ted Williams glove at Sears with the Ted Williams shoes with the eight stripes on 'em," Gwynn said in an interview conducted in 2001. "I used to play Little League, and I was Ted Williams-ed out.
"I had to go find out about Ted Williams. Ted Williams is one of the best hitters ever to play the game, and I didn't get a chance to see him play, so all I could do was read books and look at pictures."
Although Gwynn read Williams' book "The Science of Hitting," he didn't understand it very much in his youth. Actually, it took until well into his Major League career before he really could grasp what Williams was talking about.
"The problem with Ted's book is, you have to understand hitting for it to make sense," Gwynn said. "To really get into it, you really have to understand hitting. I didn't understand it enough to know what he was talking about, sometimes."
But then, after establishing himself as one of the Major Leagues' best hitters, Gwynn had the opportunity to meet Williams. A friendship blossomed, and Gwynn had found about the only person on the face of the earth who could be a hitting guru to the best pure hitter of his generation.
The friendship was out there for all to see at the 1999 All-Star Game in Boston, when it was Gwynn who helped escort Williams during the memorable pregame ceremony -- providing an indelible link between the hometown of Williams' youth to the home of his baseball glory, Fenway Park.
Gwynn first met Williams at the 1992 All-Star Game, which was played in San Diego. Williams came back to his hometown to be part of the festivities, which included the naming of a street in his honor -- Ted Williams Parkway, in the northern part of the city, an area that used to be brush and farmland when Williams grew up in San Diego.
Already the game's best pure hitter at the time, Gwynn said his career took off in a new direction once he spoke with Williams.
"I always felt like since the All-Star Game of '92, the first time I met him, I was a much better hitter from that point on," Gwynn said. "Those eight, nine years after that, I was a much better hitter than I was my first 10 or 11."
Gwynn remembers the meeting vividly.
"He came in from the American League side," Gwynn said. "People had been telling me that he wanted to meet me, and I prepared for it. I talked to Joe Morgan, talked to Frank Robinson, talked to a lot of guys who had conversations with him before. And I only got to talk to him for three minutes.
"He was coming in through the dugout on the third-base side, I walk over and introduce myself, and he says, 'Hey, Tony, how ya doin'?' I had a bat in my hand and he picked it up and said, 'Is this the piece of (crap) you swing?' And he took it and started to pick his teeth with it, because it's a small bat.
"I said, 'Yeah.' And he said, 'Look here, son. Major League history is made on the ball inside.' "
Gwynn admits now the advice didn't sink in for a while -- Gwynn still lived off spraying balls through the left side of the infield. But Williams reiterated the advice after the 1994 season when he invited Gwynn to his Hitters Hall of Fame, and this time Gwynn eventually heeded the advice.
In 1997 in particular, Gwynn started turning on the ball, and he wound up with a career-high 17 homers and 119 RBIs that season -- adding power to his already impressive hitting resume, albeit a bit late in his career.
At a banquet at the San Diego Hall of Champions that offseason, Gwynn made sure everybody in attendance knew where his successful season started: with that conversation with Williams.
"First thing out of my mouth, I said, 'You know, tonight we have Ted Williams here, and I have to tell you Ted gave me some advice a couple of years ago, and when he gave it to me, I really didn't believe it. And it turns out that he was absolutely right, and I owe him a debt of thanks," Gwynn said. "He did not say a word. He just looked me right in the eye, and he winked."
For Gwynn, that was typical. The hitting guru took so much pleasure in seeing his student succeed.
Said Gwynn: "In talking to him, you never got the sense that he was just going to lay it out for you and hand it to you, say, 'Here, this is what I'm talking about.' He made you figure it out for yourself. That's the beauty of it."
John Schlegel is a writer for MLB.com based in the Bay Area. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.