The players we care about the most are not necessarily the ones that bring us the most happiness. There is too much riding on it for the relationships to be quite as healthily abstract as they should be. Baseball players are, in the end, actors in a television show that we watch all summer. This is easier to understand and remember when viewed from a healthy distance, but we don't necessarily watch our teams from a healthy distance.
That lack of distance and perspective is sort of the definitional thing about caring about a team, actually, and the fact that it leads otherwise well-adjusted men and women to entrust a portion of our psychological well-being to strangers named Dayton Moore or Lucas Duda -- which is a very stupid thing to do -- doesn't stop us from doing it. There will always be some degree of fan-blind partisanship, and so there are always these jagged, mine-strewn DMZs standing between people with rooting interests and certain players.
There is no rationalizing or negotiating that part. There are miles and years of uninhabitable radioactive wasteland between me and an even remotely objective assessment of Chipper Jones, for instance. There may be people who feel this way about Tony Gwynn, although it's hard to imagine how they could.
Gwynn, 1989 (Getty Images)
This is why it is nice to have some baseball on the side: other teams that we can watch without agony, and players that we can enjoy in happy abstraction, and watch simply because they are good in a way that's unique and beautiful and happy-making.
We see these players less -- in the days before MLB Season Ticket, just a few times a year -- and watch them differently, but they're good to have. It is nice to be able to drop in on Joey Votto or Mike Trout or Chris Sale or Andrew McCutchen and watch them do what they do. This is sort of like going by a museum to look at a favorite piece of art, but maybe more like watching that art as it is being created, a few chips closer to freeing some masterpiece from its prison in hard marble.
No player in my lifetime, with the possible exception of Ken Griffey Jr. during his apex-predator peak in the late 1990s, did better by this role than Tony Gwynn. This was not just because a one-game visitation with Gwynn was sure to yield something impeccably Gwynn-ian -- four or five more-or-less masterful at-bats, almost certainly at least one hit, some other surprising grace note in the field or on the basepaths. It was not just that Gwynn was great. It was that he was great in a way that so few have ever been great.
Watching Tony Gwynn hit, like watching Greg Maddux pitch, was not a passive experience. There was, in both, an intense and dynamic and fearsomely intelligent volatility, a sense of both how complicated baseball is, and that there was at work someone who had penetrated much of that complexity. This was Gwynn's astonishing counterpunching rigor: the sense that he was, in each at-bat, running through an extremely complicated probabilistic equation in his mind and body, while simultaneously carrying on a deceptively jocular conversation with the pitcher.
There was, always, a lot of work to Gwynn's brilliance, and a great deal of study; this was Gwynn's storied dedication, the obsessiveness with which he went about growing and improving the astonishing athletic gifts with which he was born. Jon Bois is right to describe Gwynn as a scientist, in the sense that Gwynn was defined by ceaseless, restless recalibration.
But there was also a tremendous amount of craft to all this, a leavening artistry and pleasure in all those supercomputer calculations. Gwynn made of his brain a mainframe, adjusting and adjusting again according to the pitcher and the pitch and the situation. He was better at this than just about anyone ever to play the game, and there is data to prove that. He created, in each at-bat, something smaller and smarter than baseball itself. But Gwynn also and most inspiringly played with wild delight within the rational, right-angle structure that he built.
This, when I was watching him as a kid and Gwynn had not yet expanded into the RBI Baseball-ian softness of his later career, was the thing that grabbed me, that made me know that this was a player I needed to watch. It was clear, because of the impossible numbers that Gwynn put up -- his .370/.447/.511 line from 1987 is no more comprehensible to me now than it was when I was nine years old -- that he was a genius at his game. It was also clear to me, even at that age, that I was not. But to watch Gwynn was to see more than a baseball player doing things I could not do; it was watching a player doing them in exactly the way -- as happily and as wonderfully well -- as anyone could dream of doing them.
The way in which Gwynn inhabited his gift -- with that striking balance of supernatural astuteness and simple, human good humor -- delivered a cleaner and more transcendent high, for me and I suspect for many others. The game was simply more fun for Gwynn than it could ever be for the rest of us, both because it was easier for him and because his genius and his work had made it something different and more enjoyable than the game that mortals struggle with.
Gwynn simply seemed to be doing a different thing than everyone else. Even as his body fell apart, Gwynn kept doing what he always did, about as well as he always did. In 229 at-bats after turning 40, in a pudgy and aching body, Gwynn hit a combined .323. That is: .323 in his abbreviated age-40 year, and then .324 in his even briefer final season. He never declined. He just stopped.
Part of the thrill of watching Tony Gwynn in pure and non-partisan abstract was the simple fantasy of flight or omnipotence that comes with watching a master at work. That is why we watch great performers: to catch some of the superhuman heat that they radiate. But, and I think this is the reason I and so many kept coming back to him, watching Tony Gwynn play also communicated a sort of philosophy; to see him play was to see a way of being come to life.
What was intoxicating about watching Gwynn was the sense that all his evident delight in the game, the mastery he wore so lightly, had also been hard-won and hard-earned. Gwynn was lucky, of course, to have been born who and how he was, but he had also refused to accept that he would only be that person. He went about redeeming that great good fortune in every at-bat, earning it over and over again. The result of that life's work, the confluence of gratitude and dedication, was what lit Tony Gwynn up. The clarity of that pursuit is what made him unmistakeable, and what made me watch.
There was, in a way I only barely understood at the time but always understood to be unique, a special sense that Tony Gwynn had earned all the fun he was having, that he'd paid in sweat and study for every bit of joy he experienced in inhabiting his gift. I didn't even know what I was learning from watching him hit; I never sensed at the time that this was, in fact, something like the best way for a person to be. I just kept coming back to watch him play, because I knew I loved doing it, and because there wasn't anything else like it to watch, not anywhere but in my wildest dreams.