The time Tony Gwynn got himself out of a slump with a walk-off

I worked very briefly with Tony Gwynn at ESPN back in the days when my job was to send Xeroxes of newspaper articles and player bios to the broadcasters (circa 2002 and 2003). Tony’s most distinguishing characteristic as a TV person was that he was both very nice and VERY nervous. This was amusing given how nervous he must have made pitchers every time they had to try to get him out in a big spot.

Gwynn had eight career walk-off RBIs, including three against the Mets. It’s a testament to how good of a hitter he was to point out that six of those came against left-handed pitchers. Lefties, righties, ambidextrous, whatever, you don’t get Tony Gwynn out easily.

A devoted Padres fan might be able to point out a better one, but my favorite among his walk-offs came on June 5, 1996 against the Cardinals.

This was a scoreless game through five innings, a pitcher’s duel between Donovan Osborne of the Cardinals and Andy Ashby of the Padres. The Cardinals scored two runs in the sixth inning to go ahead, with Willie McGee driving in one and a wild pitch bringing in another. The Padres countered in the seventh with a sacrifice fly by Brian Johnson and a two-out single by Andujar Cedeno.

The Cardinals went ahead in the eighth inning on John Mabry’s hit. The Padres tried to counter in their half, as Rickey Henderson singled and Steve Finley doubled Henderson to third. But Gwynn, battling a bad heel, failed to come through against lefty reliever Rick Honeycutt, grounding out to the pitcher. Cory Bailey escaped the jam to keep the lead intact. The Cardinals then added a run in the ninth on an error by Cedeno to lead 4-2 going to the home ninth inning

Tony LaRussa let Bailey start the ninth for St. Louis and that didn’t work out. Jody Reed singled and Cedeno doubled Reed to third, at which point LaRussa brought in Tony Fossas. Here’s where things get a little odd. Tony’s brother, Chris Gwynn, who entered the game as a defensive replacement in the top of the ninth inning, hit a ground ball to shortstop for what should have been the first out. But a throwing error by Hall-of-Famer Ozzie Smith made Gwynn safe at first and brought in Reed to make it 4-3

With two on and nobody out, Padres manager Bruce Bochy asked Rickey Henderson to bunt. But Fossas fielded Henderson’s bunt and threw to third for a force out. Steve Finley then erased Henderson by grounding into a 3-6 force.

So now the Padres trailed 4-3 with first and third, two outs in the ninth inning, and Tony Gwynn coming up against Fossas, who had held Gwynn hitless in five previous at-bats. Gwynn was in a 7-for-37 slump. The drama made for a cool moment.

And even cooler was what happened. Tony Gwynn hit a walk-off three-run home run on a hanging curveball, scoring his brother in front of him. It was Gwynn’s first home run of the season and he struggled to make it around the bases on his bad heel. He credited the failure in the previous at bat with getting him righted for this one.

“Even though Tony is hurting, we couldn’t have had a better guy up there,” Bochy said.

The 1996 season was an injury-plagued one for Gwynn. But he still hit. He batted .353 and won his third of four straight batting titles.

When I was prepping Tony Gwynn for his first game broadcast, I thought it was important that the rest of the broadcast crew knew as much about Tony as possible. So I stuffed as much bio information about Gwynn into each of the envelopes for the members of the broadcast crew. And then I stuck one in Gwynn’s envelope too.

So I was rather amused when I was reading a newspaper a few days later and saw (paraphrasing) this comment from Gwynn:

‘They sent me a packet with a lot of information about me. I know about me. I want to know about everyone else!’

For the record, I checked – there was no malicious intent on Tony’s part. And I think it’s cool to say I got called out by a Hall of Famer. 🙂

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