Tony Gwynn, baseball scientist, has died

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Tony Gwynn passed away Monday at 54. There was only one of him.

I don't remember Tony Gwynn ever striking out, because it almost never happened. For comparison's sake, let's consider that Adam Dunn, the great strikeout artist of our time, once struck out 588 times over a three-year stretch. Gwynn played 20 seasons and struck out only 434 times. These days, hitters strike out about 18 percent of the time. Gwynn, over the course of his entire career: four percent.

The only memory I have of him failing is from This Week In Baseball or a show a lot like it. Gwynn was playing a baseball video game with his kid. The game's developers, without telling him, completely rigged it against him. Every other pitch he threw, he was lit up for a home run. At the plate, every ball he put into play was a dribbler to the mound. He just sort of chuckled, because he's Tony Gwynn. True scientists don't get upset when their laws go belly-up.

I doubt anyone had a closer relationship with, and understanding of, our three dimensions and the things that happen within them. Those jokers at Electronic Arts beat Tony Gwynn the only way anyone could: by taking his laws away.

Gwynn, whose nickname was Captain Video, was baseball's jolliest supervillain dork: famously friendly, with multiple lairs. His first lair was his house, replete with his own personal 1980s YouTube. He had every single one of his plate appearances on videotape, and days' worth of tape documenting the delivery of every pitcher he might ever face. These weren't VHS tapes. They were smaller, about the size of audiocassettes, and could be paused and deconstructed on a frame-by-frame basis with more reliability.

He measured time in frames. Maybe he looked at his swing in frame five and was satisfied. If his shoulder was too low in frame seven, he would frown and go about the business of solving himself.

That was where he learned how to defeat baseball, and his second lair was where he made sure his body understood. After years of asking, the Padres built him a room deep in the underbelly of Jack Murphy Stadium. From George Will's profile of Gwynn in Men at Work:

It is a long, narrow batting room, big enough for a pitcher's mound at regulation distance from a plate, and an "Iron Mike" pitching machine with a capacity for about 250 baseballs. The room is lit at 300 candle feet, exactly as the Jack Murphy field is lit.

I know that this room was originally lit to, say, 285 candle feet, and Tony Gwynn said it wasn't quite right, and they fixed it because it is impossible to say no to a smiling Tony Gwynn.

During the first days of the 1989 season, Gwynn spent so much time using the new batting room that a teammate said, "He wants the hits to land and spin a certain way."

Pitchers spent their entire lives in pursuit of leveraging a baseball's only geometric imperfection -- its stitches -- into breaking balls. They are, at least, allowed to use their hand. Gwynn wanted to do the same with a god-dang piece of wood. He wanted to hit a breaking ball. By this, I don't mean he wanted to hit a baseball that was thrown as a breaking ball by a pitcher, which is impossible enough. He wanted to hit a breaking ball, just as a pitcher would throw one.

Nearly every athlete in sports' upper echelons works very, very hard, but Gwynn shared his level of obsession with nobody. The grade of mastery he was after, given the crudeness of his tools, was like trying to build a ship in a bottle with a pair of hammers.

Tony Gwynn is a hero for matter-of-factly, and affably, dedicating himself to that quest, and he is a legend for getting halfway there. He is a role model for anyone who ever wants to defeat the universe.

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