SAN DIEGO — Three weeks into the 1994 baseball season, Tony Gwynn was driving home from the ballpark with his 11-year-old son sitting next to him in the car.
Gwynn had gone 5 for 5 that April night against Philadelphia.
“They’re going to hit me tomorrow,” Gwynn said to his son.
“What?,” Tony Gwynn Jr. said. “I watched the whole game. Why would they do that?”
“They think I’m stealing signs,” his father said.
Right-hander Curt Schilling was on the mound the next day for the Phillies. His last warm-up pitch hit the screen. After Padres leadoff hitter Craig Shipley flied out, Schilling’s first pitch to Gwynn hit the right fielder on the side of the right thigh.
Umpire Bob Davidson stepped out from behind the plate and warned Schilling as Gwynn picked himself off the ground, pointed and shouted at Schilling.
Padres manager Jim Riggleman came out and made sure Gwynn didn’t do anything he might regret, like going after the pitcher, as he limped to first base.
“I’m not going to charge the mound,” Gwynn told reporters afterward. “I’m not going to get suspended for four games. I’m not going to get fined $5,000. But that does not mean I can’t try to hit the ball up the middle.”
Added Gwynn: “They’re going to tell you something about how the pitch got away or some other (bleep),” Gwynn said, “but I know he hit me on purpose, and everybody on our bench knows it. I got it here on a videotape, and it’s as clear as a bell — the man threw right at me. … The only thing I don’t know is if Schilling hit me on purpose or was ordered to hit me.”
In the third inning, Gwynn lined a ball past Schilling for a single. He singled again in the fourth, tying a franchise record with his eighth consecutive hit. After a groundout in the sixth, Gwynn singled again in the eighth, raising his batting average to .448.
“I felt like the incident with Curt Schilling lit a fire,” Tony Gwynn Jr. said recently. “I’ve never seen my dad that upset. Never seen him get up and yell and point.
“From that point forward, not only was Curt Schilling never going to get him out again, but the rest of the league was in trouble. Because he was just locked in. He was pissed. Pissed.
“From that point on, he just hit and hit and hit.”
Yes, he did.
Gwynn was piling up hits at a greater rate than in any season of his Hall of Fame career, threatening to become baseball’s first .400 hitter in 53 years.
Gwynn’s pursuit of .400 was one of several storylines that came crashing to a halt 25 years ago, when the longest strike in baseball history began following the games on Aug. 11, 1994.
Another historical chase lost to the strike was being waged by Giants third baseman Matt Williams, whose 43 home runs put him on pace to challenge Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61.
Also, the Montreal Expos had the best record in baseball. Who knows what impact an extended playoff run and possible World Series title would have had on that city’s baseball future.
The strike forced the World Series to be canceled for the first time since 1904. Most of the first month of the 1995 season was wiped out before the sides settled their differences.
Gwynn was batting .394 when the strike hit. It has been a quarter century since he came so close to the magical .400 mark. The way the game is played now, it could be another quarter century — if ever — before someone threatens to do it again.
Seven weeks remained for Gwynn to make history. Would he have done it? That’s a question that will never be answered. But, boy, would it have been fun watching him try to become the first .400 hitter since another San Diegan, Ted Williams, hit .406 for the Boston Red Sox in 1941.
The subject of batting .400 did come up between Gwynn and Williams during one of their conversations during the 1990s.
“Ted looked at me and said, ‘If I knew that hitting .400 would have been so damn important, I would have done it more often,’ ” Gwynn said. “I just laughed. But the more I thought about that, he probably could have hit .400 again if he had wanted.”
Gwynn actually did hit .400 during the 162-game stretch from Aug. 1, 1993 to May 9, 1995, batting .406 by going 242 for 596.
Doing it the same season is what would have made it so special. And it would have given Padres fans a reason to come to the ballpark. They certainly weren’t attracted by a last-place team that was 47-70 when the season ended.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say I want to make a crack at .400,” Gwynn told The Sporting News in the midst of that 1994 campaign. “But it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be a lot more difficult than I think people think, but I just go out and play. I don’t worry about the numbers. I just go out there and just play because that’s where I’m having the most fun.”
Gwynn opened the season by batting .395 in April. He was still at .393 at the end of May, which included nine days at or above .400. He was at .391 through June and .385 by the time July was in the books.
When August arrived, Gwynn really got going. He went on one of his patented hot streaks. He batted .475 (19 for 40) during the 10 games in August before his season concluded with 45 games remaining on the schedule.
Maybe it’s a good thing he didn’t accomplish the feat in a strike-shortened season.
With the strike looming, the Padres headed to Houston for what would be the final series of the season.
Gwynn was at .392 going into the series. He needed to go 9 for 14 to get to .400. He went 6 for 13. That included collecting three singles in five at-bats in an 8-6 win over Houston in the Padres’ final game of the season.
Gwynn’s .394 average was the highest in the majors — and remains so — since Williams hit .406.
A 4-for-4 performance would have lifted Gwynn to .400.
Had he done it, Tony Gwynn Jr. said, “I honestly believe it would have had an asterisk, in the mind of most folks. It was such a difficult feat as it was, the fact that he would have done it in a shortened season, that would have always been brought up, and I don’t know that he would have liked that.”
Gwynn didn’t discuss “what ifs” with his son during his career.
“I don’t know if he didn’t want to bring it up, but it just never came up,” Tony Gwynn Jr. said. “This is the same guy who didn’t think he was getting into the Hall of Fame until they actually called him, so it’s not that far of a reach to think it crossed his mind a little bit. But my dad was a very focused individual, so when it came to stuff like that, he turned the page and got ready for the next season.”
Gwynn Jr. doubts that his father dwelled on the subject.
“He was a realist,” Gwynn Jr. said. “Once he got it in his mind that that season wasn’t going to be completed, there was no point. He was the king of telling me, ‘Control what you can control.’ It’s one of the hardest things for athletes to do, is actually worry about the things they can control and let all the other things go. He mastered that, which is probably why he was so good. He focused on what he could do.”
Gwynn, who died in 2014, did discuss the subject publicly on a few occasions through the years.
In an interview with NBC Sports, Gwynn was asked if he felt deprived of an opportunity to hit .400.
“Deprived? I don’t feel that way,” he said. “We (players) all were in the same boat. But in my mind, I thought I could. I sure wanted the chance. I was squaring the ball up nicely, hitting lefties, righties. I would have given it a run. I’m not sure how I would have handled it in September. But I think I had the type of personality to handle it. We’ll never know, but I have no regrets.”
Gwynn’s hot streak in August began with a series in Los Angeles against the Dodgers.
Tony’s brother, Chris, then an outfielder for the Dodgers, remembers his teammates talking about it.
“He was on a tear, making it look easy,” Chris Gwynn said. “The guys couldn’t get him out. He was either walking or hitting a rocket somewhere. And all of them were falling.
“(His average) was steadily climbing and everybody was like, ‘Oh, my God, he’s going to do it.’ ”
Chris Gwynn said his brother wasn’t concerned so much with the on-the-field task but potential off-the-field distractions.
“What he was worried about was how he was going to handle the media,” Chris Gwynn said. “As he got closer, the media attention was going to go through the roof. He was starting to let his mind figure out how he was going to do it.
“I don’t know if he said that out loud, but you could just tell. He was trying to stay in the moment.
“He normally had five to 10 writers around him every BP. Then it became, 20, 25, 30. He’s thinking how’s he going to handle this. Because after awhile there’s going to be a press conference every day.”
Gwynn certainly would have had a plan in place.
“I’m kind of upset I’m not going to get those extra six points,” Gwynn said after the strike came. “But I’ve done everything I wanted to do offensively this year.”
Gwynn was on pace for career highs in several offensive categories. He had 165 hits, 35 doubles, 12 home runs, 79 runs scored and 64 RBIs over 110 games when the strike came.
“Deep down in my heart, I think he would have done it,” Chris Gwynn said.
Tony Gwynn Jr. shares that sentiment. So did his father. Although it would have to have come in a car ride long after his career had concluded.
“It never came up until after he retired,” Tony Gwynn Jr. said. “That’s when he was more open to talk about it and more open to admit that he thought he would have actually done it. … We had that conversation a few times, and I got him to the point where he was like, ‘I’m positive that I would have hit .400.’ ”
Baseball’s .400 hitters
It’s been 78 years since someone batted .400 in the major leagues. Here’s the list:
1941 — Ted Williams, Boston (AL), .406
1930 — Bill Terry, N.Y. Giants (NL), .401
1925 — Rogers Hornsby, St. Louis (NL), .403
1924 — Rogers Hornsby, St. Louis (NL), .424
1923 — Harry Heilman, Detroit (AL), .403
1922 — Ty Cobb, Detroit (AL), .401
1922 — Rogers Hornsby, St. Louis (NL), .401
1922 — George Sisler, St. Louis (AL).420
1920 — George Sisler, St. Louis (AL), .407
1912 — Ty Cobb, Detroit (AL), .409
1911 — Joe Jackson, Cleveland (AL), .408
1911 — Ty Cobb, Detroit (AL), .420
1901 — Nap Lajoie, Philadelphia (AL), .426