Jun 18, 2014, 1:01 PM EDT
In the outpour of Tony Gwynn remembrances since his untimely death at the age of 54 on Monday, you may have noticed a lot of people mentioning the 5.5 hole, also known as the space between the third baseman and the shortstop on a baseball diamond.
As a left-handed hitter who could spray baseballs all over a ballpark, Gwynn mastered the ability to poke singles the other way, right through where his opponents were standing.
Perhaps few men on Earth knew Gwynn’s ability to do that more than Nationals manager Matt Williams. As a third baseman for the San Francisco Giants from 1987 to 1996, he saw a lot of Gwynn as a division rival. Gwynn played for the San Diego Padres that entire span, and had a knack for hitting it right past the future Nats skipper.
“We tried, we tried to defend him a lot of different ways,” Williams said. “We moved the shortstop over, me playing off the line more. It gave me the sense that he’d walk to the plate and see where you were, and then decided to hit it where you weren’t.
“You’d stand out there and try to defend it and he’d hit it by you. You would just go ‘oh, I don’t know what to do.’ And we weren’t alone, that’s for sure.”
Williams was a 5-time All-Star and each time played with Gwynn on the National League squad. Seeing the Hall of Famer up close gave Williams a greater appreciation of his abilities.
“It was a marvel to see him take batting practice because he could do anything he wanted to do with a baseball. He’d take any pitch and hit it wherever he wanted to hit it. He was probably the best pure hitter in our generation as players and maybe of all time. That’s a lot of hits and that’s a lot of batting titles.”
Williams fondly remembers Gwynn being friendly to his opponents before games. He was a genuinely nice to other players, fans and the media.
“He was a genuine person,” Williams said. “Truly concerned about people, about certainly his craft, his family, San Diegans and being part of that great organization. From a competitor’s standpoint, you just knew he was genuine. If he said hello to you and asked you how you were doing, he meant it. He’ll be dearly missed by a lot of folks.”
Gwynn died of cancer on Monday and it is believed his use of smokeless chewing tobacco contributed to the cause. Dipping is still prevalent in the game of baseball today, and many believe Gwynn’s death will open some eyes on the issue.
Williams discussed that notion:
“It hits home with a lot of folks and it’s been part of our sport for a long time. It certainly makes you think.”
Williams will remember Gwynn as a great adversary on the baseball field and a friend off of it.
“It’s just sad, way too soon,” Williams said. “[His ability to hit] was pretty special. He was a pretty special human, too.”
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