June 16, 2014 at 1:00 am


Tigers' Brad Ausmus fondly recalls Tony Gwynn's generous spirit

The Tony Gwynn "Mr. Padre" statue is outside Petco Park in San Diego. (Lenny Ignelzi / Associated Press)

Detroit — Brad Ausmus was 25 at the time. It would have been his first full season in the majors if the strike hadn’t cut it short.

It was 1994.

The Padres weren’t good that year. In fact, they were pretty bad. But Tony Gwynn was great.

He would hit .394, but much of the talk, right up to the work stoppage that would end baseball’s season, was about whether Gwynn would hit .400.

We’ll never know.

We’ll only know that if he’d had 168 hits instead of the 165 he had in 419 at-bats, Gwynn would have hit .401.

On Monday, Gwynn died after a bout with cancer. He was 54.

Ausmus remembers marveling at his ability to hit, but also appreciates the way Gwynn would make young players feel at home in the majors.

“When I first went to the big leagues, Tony took some of us under his wing,” the Tigers manager said. “We played a lot of golf together, until I stopped playing because I wasn’t getting any better.

“We started out even, but Tony kept getting better and I didn’t.”

Imagine the excitement of being a young player in the majors, though, and having as your teammate a possible .400 hitter.

“There was a lot of talk about that,” Ausmus said.

Even on the team itself? Apparently so.

“If you played with him, it seemed like he never made an out,” Ausmus said. “Everything he touched seemed to find a hole. His teammates were happy for him, but also jealous.

“There were a lot of people, though, talking about whether he could hit .400. He was the best I’ve ever seen at putting the fat part of the bat on the ball.”

Ausmus also remembers Gwynn being ahead of his time as far as turning to video as a learning tool.

“He was really the first guy that I played with who delved into video,” he said. “The first guy who not only analyzed what he was doing, but what the pitcher was doing as well.

“Since that time, video has really taken off. But he was also someone who talked hitting all the time.”

And whose hitting was talked about all the time.

Former Tigers outfielder Rusty Kuntz, now a coach with the Royals, remembered how much time Detroit spent discussing Gwynn during the 1984 World Series.

Gwynn was 24 and had hit .351 that season, his first full one in the majors. He was, by far, the best hitter the Tigers were going to face in the five games it would take them to beat the Padres in the Series.

“We’d spend a couple of minutes talking about each guy, and where to play them defensively,” Kuntz said. “But on Gwynn, we’d spend 10 minutes.

“It just seemed he could put the ball where he wanted it.”

If anybody could, Gwynn could.

But the Tigers who knew him will cherish their memory of Gwynn the person, as much as Gwynn the hitter.

“He was awesome,” said Torii Hunter, who was five years into his career when Gwynn retired after the 2001 season. “He didn’t have to talk to this young guy named Torii and to share information as far as playing the game, something I’ll cherish forever.

“We lost a great man today, a great baseball player. We’re going to miss him. “