Art Howe played, coached and managed in the big leagues from 1974 to 2008.
Translation? He played, coached and managed with – and against – some of the greatest players, coaches and managers in baseball history.
One of those players was Tony Gwynn.
“I was very fortunate,” Howe said on The MoJo Show. “I actually was managing in winter ball in Puerto Rico, and Tony came over to play for me right about the time he was breaking into the big leagues. He was tearing the league up – hitting about .353 or something like that – and he broke his wrist.”
Gwynn hit a ball to the gap in left-center and was watching to see how if he could stretch a double into a triple. Well, it had rained, and as Gwynn touched first base, which was wet, his feet fell out from under him. He landed on his wrist and broke it.
“He was leading the league (in hitting) by far,” Howe said. “Just a great, great kid. Obviously a great hitter and a great human being, and I was just very fortunate to have him for that very short period of time.”
Howe, 67, also managed against Gwynn from 1989 to 1993 in Houston.
“We just couldn’t get the guy out. Period,” Howe said. “That’s how good he was.”
And that’s what Gwynn will be remembered for – not to mention his infectious personality, high-pitched voice and life-is-good cackle. Gwynn – affectionately known as “Mr. Padre” – died Monday after a long battle with salivary gland cancer. He was 54.
What was a manager’s approach when facing Gwynn, a career .338 hitter?
”You just hoped it was a single,” Howe said. “That’s all. You knew he was going to get a knock. You just didn’t want to have him turn on one and hit the ball out of the ball park.”
And yet, Howe felt the most underrated part of Gwynn’s game was his defense, which he put a lot of time and effort into. When he was on the road, Gwynn would study outfield walls and practice fielding balls off of them. Why? He wanted to see how the balls would bounce because it might help him in the game.
“You never saw another opposition outfielder come in and do something like that,” Howe said. “It was like he was playing at home. He knew better than our outfielders what the heck the ball was going to do off the walls.”
And he could run, too – husky frame and all.
“Oh yeah, Tony could run,” Howe said. “You look at his body and say, ‘Oh, this guy can’t run’ or ‘He (can’t) steal a base.’ He stole it when they needed it. (He) got great jumps.”
Gwynn stole 319 bases in his career. He had five seasons of 25+ steals, including a career-high 56 in 1987.
“Just a total ballplayer,” Howe said. “Just made the game look easy. And once again, just always smiling. Just a great, great guy.”