Ichiro's feat would have brought joy to Gwynn

June 16th, 2016

SAN DIEGO -- Tony Gwynn would have had great appreciation for what transpired at Petco Park the past three days -- one of the best hitters in National League history watching and commenting on one of the best hitters ever on two continents passing Pete Rose's all-time hits record of 4,256.

"Yeah, he really would have loved it," said John Boggs, Gwynn's agent then and Ichiro Suzuki's agent now. "He would have loved the interaction of describing what it's like when you approach one of these milestones. But more importantly, I think he would have loved to just talk hitting with Ichiro.

"I think the two of them would have had a great conversation. Like Tony had all the time with Ted Williams."

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It wasn't to be, of course. Gwynn passed away two years ago from the complications of salivary gland cancer. He was 54.

To those who remember Gwynn most, his giant shadow still hangs over the ballpark where he never played a game, but which is located at 19 Tony Gwynn Way.

Gwynn won a record-tying eight NL batting titles and accumulated 3,141 hits in 20 big league seasons, all with the Padres. His .338 lifetime batting average is the highest of any player since Williams retired in 1960 at .344.

Gwynn's life and career was full of coincidences. Hits No. 2,000 and 3,000 came six years apart, in 1993 and '99, on Aug. 19 -- his mother's birthday.

Gwynn smacked his first hit on July 19, 1982. On July 19, 2006, his son, Tony Jr., collected his first hit. They were both doubles.

Gwynn's since-retired number was 19.

The Hall of Famer was signed by the Padres on June 16, 1981, only days after he was selected in the third round of the Draft. He died on June 16 -- 33 years later.

So it couldn't have been more strange and apropos that Ichiro would collect his 4,256th and 4,257th hits -- 2,979 of them in the Majors and 1,278 in Japan -- on the eve of the anniversary of Gwynn's death.

"I didn't know Tony Gwynn that well, but obviously through experiences like this today, being here in San Diego, I think this connection begins," Ichiro said through his longtime interpreter Allen Turner after collecting an infield single and a line-drive double. "I think there's something special about that. I think there's a reason why things like this happen. So it's very fortunate it worked out that way."

Sensing that connection, Boggs presented Ichiro with an autographed genuine B267 Gwynn bat as the Marlins' right fielder trotted back into the clubhouse after batting practice. Turner, Boggs and Ichiro met in the tunnel leading from the third-base dugout up the stairs to the visitors' clubhouse.

It was the only gift Boggs could think of giving Ichiro on the verge of him passing the much-heralded milestone.

Ichiro's response to that gift?

"Ah," Boggs said. "He was speechless."

Like Gwynn, Ichiro is a student of baseball history, and at least a half-dozen times he has surreptitiously visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where president Jeff Idelson took him into the archives to look at the hidden prizes of the Cooperstown, N.Y., collection.

Gwynn was elected to the Hall along with Cal Ripken Jr. the first time they were on the ballot in 2007, and the induction ceremony that year was attended by a record crowd of 75,000. Ichiro's eventual election on the first ballot is a certainty.

Like Gwynn, Ichiro is a left-handed slap hitter who sprays the ball all over the field depending on what a pitcher gives him. Like Gwynn (2,378), the predominate portion of Ichiro's hits are singles (2,430).

Comparatively, of the 2,935 hits pounded out by Barry Bonds, almost half (1,440) were for extra bases, including an all-time-leading 762 homers.

Bonds played his entire 22-year career in the NL with the Pirates and Giants. He didn't know much about Ichiro, an American Leaguer until joining the Marlins in 2015. Bonds, the Marlins' first-year hitting coach, has come to respect Ichiro's amazing work habits. But Bonds adored Gwynn, attending his funeral at San Diego State along with Hall of Famers Rod Carew, Dave Winfield, Ozzie Smith and Ripken two years ago.

Gwynn was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Long Beach. But first as a collegiate baseball and basketball player and later as the head baseball coach at San Diego State -- and certainly as a Padre -- he made San Diego his own.

"It's easier to reflect on him now that the years are passing," Bonds said. "Back then, it would have been too emotional, with tears coming out of your eyes at just the thought of it. I miss the things that we could have talked about and laughed about, but we never got an opportunity to do it. That's the hard part."

None of it is easy. Gwynn was a joy to watch, a joy to cover and a joy to be around.

In the worst of Padres seasons -- 97 losses in 1987 -- Gwynn would go on tears. He batted .473 that June, .402 in August and .370 for the season, the highest batting average to lead the NL since Stan Musial's .378 clip in 1948.

In 1994, Gwynn was batting .394 when the strike ended the season. He was aiming for .400 that year. When it all abruptly ended, Gwynn had a simple solution. He'd try it again in 1995. But he never again got close.

The All-Star Game is coming to San Diego on July 14, the third in Padres history. Gwynn would have loved being a part of it. Just like he would have loved watching Ichiro go for the gusto and Pete Rose in his adopted hometown this week.