Single Minded As they closed in on magic hit number 3,000, Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs looked back on eerily similar careers that established them as the top contact hitters of their time

Aug. 09, 1999
Aug. 09, 1999

Table of Contents
Aug. 9, 1999

Single Minded As they closed in on magic hit number 3,000, Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs looked back on eerily similar careers that established them as the top contact hitters of their time

From the childhood moment when each learned to swing a bat, they
have lived parallel baseball lives, heading to the same place as
surely but separately as the steel rails of a train track. Each
hits lefthanded and excels at hitting the ball to left. In
Florida, Wade Boggs was taught by his father, Win, to wait as
long as possible to swing at a pitched ball, a practice that
honed his inside-out swing. One season in the minors Wade says
he batted .332 while hitting just one ball to the right side of
second base. In California, Tony Gwynn confounded the geography
of his makeshift backyard field--a tree in centerfield and
hardly any leftfield at all--by being an opposite-field hitter.
"I have no idea why," he says. "It's my natural swing."

This is an article from the Aug. 9, 1999 issue Original Layout

They made it to the big leagues within three months of each
other in 1982, both without fanfare. They've been in lockstep
ever since, and at week's end, after 4,704 combined games in the
majors, Boggs, 41, and Gwynn, 39, had eerily similar numbers,
not only of hits (both had 2,994) but also total bases (4,051
for Gwynn, 4,042 for Boggs). As they approached the
career-capping milestone of 3,000 hits, Boggs and Gwynn can gaze
back at a proud slate of accomplishments:

--Each hit better than .350 for four straight years, the only
players to do so since 1931.

--Each won four straight batting titles, joining Rod Carew, Ty
Cobb and Rogers Hornsby, the only other players to do so.

--They have been the preeminent contact hitters in an era gone
gaga over homers. Only two players whose careers ended after
World War II finished with 3,000 hits and fewer than 160 home
runs--Lou Brock and Rod Carew. Boggs, with 117 homers, and
Gwynn, with 127, will almost certainly join them.

With the finish line of 3,000 hits in sight, it would be fitting
if Boggs and Gwynn got there closer together than any two of the
previous 20 players who have reached the magic number. (That
distinction now belongs to Tris Speaker and Eddie Collins, who
reached 3,000 within 20 days of each other in 1925.) Not far
behind Boggs and Gwynn is Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken
Jr., who at week's end needed 32 hits to make it an
unprecedented threesome for 3,000 in the same season.

"When I got to 2,000 [in 1993]," Gwynn says, "I still felt like
I had to get to 3,000. If you're a contact hitter, the bulk of
[your hits] are going to be singles. The holy ground for a
contact hitter is 3,000 hits." It's probably safe to say that
Boggs felt the same way because when they are asked to review
their career milestones, Boggs, who is in his second season with
the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and Gwynn, who has spent his entire
career with the San Diego Padres, tell stories that are often
strikingly similar.


Boggs waited through 662 minor league games over six years
before he made the big leagues, as a backup infielder with the
Boston Red Sox in 1982. On April 26, in the opener of a
doubleheader at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Boggs grounded a
single through the hole at shortstop off a 1-and-2 pitch from
White Sox righthander Richard Dotson. "I got the hit, came back
in the dugout, sat down and [Red Sox second baseman] Jerry Remy
comes by and says, 'You only got 2,999 more to go, kid,'" Boggs
says. "It's something that has stuck with me ever since."

Eighty-four days after Boggs's first hit, Gwynn made his debut,
in centerfield against the Philadelphia Phillies, after being
promoted from Triple A Hawaii. "Fourth time I came up I got a
fastball out over the plate [from lefthanded reliever Sid Monge]
and lined it into left center," Gwynn says. "Bob Dernier was
playing center. He dove, and it just went under his glove to the
wall for a double. I got to second base and I felt pretty good.
My first big league game and I got a hit. Pete Rose [the
Phillies' first baseman] is trailing the play. They flash on the
board, TONY GWYNN'S FIRST BIG LEAGUE HIT. Pete came over, shook
my hand and said, 'Congratulations. Don't catch me in one
night.' I remember it like it was yesterday. 'Congratulations'
was enough, but the 'Don't catch me in one night' thing really
stuck. And I just remember standing there thinking, god,
wouldn't it be great to have a career like he did."


Neither Boggs nor Gwynn has any recollection of his 500th hit,
even when reminded of the details. Boggs reached 500 on Sept. 9,
1984, with a single off righthander Mike Armstrong of the New
York Yankees. Gwynn hit 500 on Aug. 18 of the following season
with a single off righthander Craig McMurtry of the Atlanta
Braves. In those seasons each player suffered a major drop-off
after winning his first batting title. Boggs's average fell 36
points, to .325, in 1984; Gwynn's dropped 34 points, to .317, in

"I was still hitting the ball well," Boggs says. "I remember
sitting on the bench in Oakland, mid-July, talking to Remy, and
he goes, 'Hey, you hit .361 last year and everything fell in.
This year you're hitting line drives and nothing's falling in.
Don't change anything. Just keep hitting hard line drives
everywhere and eventually they'll fall in.' In '84, I hit .325
and kept hitting line drives, but they were right at people.
Nothing you can do about it."

Says Gwynn, "In '84 I had Alan Wiggins hitting in front of me.
So when he got on I saw a lot of fastballs. The next year he had
his drug problem and he was gone, and I found myself getting a
lot more breaking balls. It took me about a month to realize
that's what they were doing. It took me a while to make an
adjustment, but I did.

"By then I was using video," Gwynn continues. "In '83 I started
the year on the DL. I had broken my wrist in winter ball, and in
my second game back I went 3 for 4. But the next three weeks I
was awful. I was getting ready to go on a road trip when I asked
my wife to tape the games. When I looked at the tapes I realized
my front side was flying open. The next day I went out early to
BP and corrected it. I've been a believer [in video] ever since."


Boggs reached 1,000 on April 30, 1987--a full year ahead of
Gwynn--in classic Boggs form: He took a down-and-in fastball
from Seattle Mariners righthander Scott Bankhead and poked it
over third base for a single. Otherwise, '87 was the most
atypical season of his career. While batting .363, Boggs hit 24
home runs and drove in 89 runs, the last two being career highs
he has not come close to duplicating since.

"My hands were completely different," Boggs says of his style in
'87. "I've got a tape of that whole year. And I've gone back and
looked at that tape compared with all my other years, and my
left hand is way under my right hand, which consequently causes
elevation, which causes fly balls. Look at McGwire, Canseco,
McGriff. Their top hands are significantly below their bottom
hands at the moment of contact, which creates elevation. That
year at the end of spring training I had gotten into a groove
using my hands that way and stuck with it. I was able to hit
really long, high fly balls. It just happened. I came back the
next year in spring training and said, Oh, god, I hit 24 last
year, I'll hit 40 this year. And I started swinging like that,
and I popped up every single ball. And it took about three weeks
to get rid of the muscle memory that I had developed, that now
had turned into a curse, because I could not hit line drives."

Boggs and Gwynn each won batting titles in 1987 and '88, the
only seasons in which they won in the same year. Gwynn was
hitting .246 as late as July 2, 1988, and still won the
championship with a .313 average. Earlier that year, on April
22, he reached 1,000 hits with a single off Nolan Ryan of the
Houston Astros.

"It sounds good, doesn't it?" Gwynn says. "He had me 0 and 2, I
fouled off a couple of pitches, he threw that big hook, and I
hit a lazy fly ball that the leftfielder lost in the lights, and
it fell in. They flashed on the board, 1000th HIT. I go, Boy,
oh, boy, it's going to look good in the book, but I flipped a
ball into left that was lost in the lights.

"I've never seen a better fastball from a righthander than
Nolan's," Gwynn adds. "[Arizona Diamondbacks lefthander] Randy
Johnson's is similar, because it's explosive. And if you try to
chase it when it's up, you can't catch up with it. You can't
foul it off, like you can on most guys.

"After I faced Nolan a while I started to get hits. Early on
he'd get ahead, then throw a breaking ball or changeup, and he'd
get me out. I finally said, Well, I've got to sit on one of
these other ones because you can't hit the heater. So I started
getting some base hits on breaking balls and changeups [when I
was] behind on the count. And he got hip, too. And then it was
back to the scuffling mode, trying to block off a fastball to


Boggs does not recall getting halfway to 3,000. That milestone
was reached with a single against righthander Melido Perez of
the Yankees on July 21, 1989, a year in which Boggs became the
only man in this century with 200 or more hits seven years in a
row. It was, he says, his proudest career achievement.

"I think to do something that no one else has ever done--that to
me [is like] the first man to walk on the moon," he says. "I did
it while walking a hundred times."

Gwynn has exact recall of his 1,500th hit. It came on Aug. 15,
1990, off Montreal Expos reliever Steve Frey, a lefty brought in
specifically to face Gwynn. "I hit a slider into left center for
a single," Gwynn says. That at bat typified one of the most
dramatic changes in the game Gwynn has seen over his career: the
specialization of relief pitching. Gwynn has been a terrific
clutch hitter (.347 with runners in scoring position) while
seeing more and more lefthanders in late-inning situations.

"If you get a hit with two outs and nobody on base, that's what
you're supposed to do as a contact hitter," Gwynn says. "But
when there's a guy in scoring position late in the game and they
bring in that lefty out of the bullpen, that's when you earn
your salt. So you have to bear down and trust the things you
trust normally. That's what I try to do. I don't make it any
bigger than it is. I try to go up there with the same approach
every time, whether there's a guy on second and two outs, or
nobody on and two outs.

"[Former Padres manager] Dick Williams, early in my career,
against certain lefties, just didn't feel like I could handle
them, I guess. In '84 he started letting me hang in there. I did
O.K. I mean, I wasn't great. But as time goes by you get more
confidence. Now, in today's game where you've got managers who
like three lefties and three righties in the bullpen, I know I'm
going to see a lefty when the starter comes out. So if a
lefthanded hitter wants to play in this game today, he'd better
get comfortable hitting lefties."


At this milestone both Boggs and Gwynn had doubts about staying
with the only organizations they'd ever known. By the time Boggs
slid headfirst for an infield single off lefthander Mark
Langston of the Angels on May 17, 1992, he figured the Red Sox
no longer wanted him. He hit .259 that year, by far the worst
average of his career.

"I came to spring training anticipating that I'd sign a
multiyear deal," Boggs says. "Mrs. [Jean] Yawkey [the Red Sox
owner] had died, and that spring the team said, 'Here's the
deal, take it or leave it.' I said, 'Wait a minute. This isn't
the way potential free agents work. It's called negotiating.'
They said, 'Take it or leave it.' Mentally, the year was a
disaster. I could read the handwriting on the wall. They had
[third baseman] Scott Cooper, and we were both lefthanded.

"So then I just went out and did one of those typically stupid
things, trying too hard and trying to hit home runs and do all
this stuff I couldn't do so I could say I told you so. And I
wound up at the end of the season with, Well, I didn't tell you
so. So they let me go [as a free agent, to the Yankees]."

Gwynn reached 2,000 with a single off Colorado Rockies
lefthander Bruce Ruffin on Aug. 6, 1993--three weeks after the
cash-strapped Padres, in a fire sale, traded slugging first
baseman Fred McGriff to the Braves, and six weeks after they
traded power-hitting third baseman Gary Sheffield to the
Marlins. San Diego lost 101 games that year. It was the worst
team Gwynn ever played on. He was embarrassed when the Padres
made such a big deal out of 2,000--they stopped the game and set
off fireworks--but he figured he knew why.

"I don't have the most athletic body and I was 33 years old, so
they weren't sure if I'd be around to get to 3,000," Gwynn says.
"I tried to talk them out of it. But I had to suck it up and
take it. It turned out to be pretty nice. But the whole time I'm
thinking, I've got to get to three [thousand].

"When you're 5'10", 225, with knee problems--I missed two or
three Septembers in a row with surgery--I'm sure management has
its doubts," Gwynn says. "I started to think about leaving
because I had endured all the moves we made and criticism that
was leveled at us and started to think about what it might be
like going somewhere else. I didn't think about it that much
until after the season. And that's when my dad [Charles] and I
got into it about whether I should go or stay. He said, 'They're
not trying to win, you should get out.' I said, 'No, I like it
here, I should stay.' And I still believe I'm where I'm supposed
to be. Now, as I get on the cusp of 3,000, I couldn't see myself
doing this somewhere else."


Boggs was in his third season as a Yankee when he singled to
centerfield off A's righthander Don Wengert on Aug. 23, 1995. He
hit .313 in five seasons in New York, though he clearly missed
Fenway Park, where he had been a career .369 hitter in 11
seasons with the Sox. He averaged almost 40 doubles per season
with Boston but only 24 in five seasons with New York.

"I never had to worry about pulling the ball in Fenway Park,
because rightfield was so big," Boggs says. "I could stay inside
the ball on the inside part of the plate and get enough on it to
hit it to leftfield and get it up on the wall. Then, when I went
to Yankee Stadium, I really had to redefine my swing, because my
high fly ball to left center really wasn't cutting it. So I had
to play low to left and high to right. That's the reverse of
Fenway Park.

"That was something my dad bounced off me. He said, 'Son, your
swing in Fenway Park won't work in Yankee Stadium. This is how
we're going to have to do it.' So I basically spent three months
in the off-season before I went to spring training in '93 just
working on that."

Gwynn followed Boggs to 2,500 a year later, on Sept. 14, 1996,
with a single off a slider from righthanded Reds reliever Hector
Carrasco. "Then I knew, I'm going to get it," Gwynn says of his
quest for 3,000. That year, he won his seventh batting title by
batting .353. However, he hit only three home runs and drove in
50 runs, the lowest full-season totals in each category for his
career. It was after that season that a conversation with Ted
Williams led to the kind of anomalous season in 1997 that Boggs
had in 1987. Gwynn reached career highs in home runs (17) and
RBIs (119), becoming the oldest player--at 37 years, 103
days--to drive in 100 runs for the first time.

"I haven't changed very much as a hitter--only in the sense of
trying to be more aggressive on the inside pitch," Gwynn says.
"Ted told me, 'You have so much time in the big leagues. You
know these pitchers. You've got to let it go. Just let it go!'
And for two years I did. But you get in trouble when you begin
to like the results. You have some success, and you want to do
it all the time. I just feel like this year I have to get back
to using the whole field, because I made too many mistakes last
year [.321, 16 homers, 69 RBIs], because I was in too many
situations where I was looking for a pitch and never got it.
Instead of trying to force it, just take what they give you."


They have hit the stretch run to 3,000 together. Parallel lives
still. Boggs and Gwynn never have played against each other,
except in 10 All-Star Games. They never talked hitting; never
said much more than, "Hi, how you doing?" to each other--all the
while taking the same journey. So what will accomplishing this
feat mean to each of them?

"There's tremendous satisfaction," Boggs says, "not only from a
personal standpoint, but from what it has meant to my father.
Because he molded me into the player that I am, physically and
mentally. The discipline, the patience. He always said, There
are a lot of guys in this game with a lot more talent than you,
but if you bust your ass and hustle and work hard, then you'll
be better than them."

"The best thing for me," Gwynn says, "has just been the passion
of wanting to play. The challenge of stepping in the box, the
challenge of trying to be successful. When I started out, I
guarantee you nobody figured I would be where I am today.
Nobody. Not even myself. Maybe there's something that makes you
want to go out and prove people wrong, but for me, it's just the
passion of loving to do what I do."

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY C.F. PAYNECOLOR PHOTO: JERRY WACHTER Still swingin' From his early days in Boston till last week with Tampa Bay, Boggs has changed little in appearance or at the plate.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Livin' large Gwynn may look heftier now than he did in '86, but he never stopped hitting and he never left his first team, the Padres.COLOR PHOTO: CRAIG MOLENHOUSE [See caption above]B/W PHOTO: DURANT/SI PICTURE COLLECTION Wee no more Today's players are bigger and hit for more power than Keeler.

Hits & Misses

Here are the 10 pitchers Wade Boggs has enjoyed the most success
against and the 10 who most often had his number. (Minimum 30 at
bats; asterisk denotes lefthander.)

Top 10


Jim Clancy .450 40 18 0
Bret Saberhagen .450 60 27 1
Walt Terrell .433 60 26 2
Scott Bankhead .429 35 15 0
Mike Flanagan* .424 33 14 0
Charlie Leibrandt* .418 55 23 3
Tim Belcher .410 39 16 0
Kenny Rogers* .405 37 15 0
Scott Erickson .396 53 21 0
Juan Berenguer .395 38 15 1

Toughest 10

Bob Welch .139 36 5 0
Chris Bosio .188 48 9 0
Scott Sanderson .188 32 6 0
Greg Swindell* .188 32 6 0
Charles Nagy .204 54 11 0
Don Sutton .206 34 7 0
David Wells* .206 34 7 2
Kevin Appier .216 51 11 1
Chuck Finley* .222 36 8 0
Storm Davis .240 50 12 0


Victors & Victims

Here are the 10 pitchers Tony Gwynn most liked to face and the
10 who most often sent him to the videotape. (Minimum 30 at
bats; asterisk denotes lefthander.)

Top 10


Don Carman* .485 33 16 1
Doug Drabek .469 49 23 0
John Smoltz .452 62 28 2
Mark Gardner .441 34 15 0
Ron Darling .441 59 26 0
Greg Maddux .438 80 35 0
Larry McWilliams* .433 30 13 1
Bobby J. Jones .432 44 19 0
John Denny .429 35 15 1
Ted Power .424 33 14 1

Toughest 10

Denny Neagle* .182 33 6 1
Jose DeLeon .200 35 7 0
John Smiley* .205 39 8 1
Mario Soto .212 33 7 1
Don Robinson .231 39 9 0
Steve Bedrosian .235 34 8 0
Dwight Gooden .243 70 17 0
John Burkett .243 37 9 0
Rick Honeycutt* .250 44 11 0
Kent Mercker* .250 36 9 1