Four hours from Seattle and with a population of roughly 30,000, Walla Walla, Washington was home to a minor league baseball team.
Known more for its sweet onions and wineries, it was the catapult that lofted Gwynn’s career into the next stratosphere.
“There are a lot of things that have happened over the years but being fortunate enough to have Tony Gwynn before he was really Tony Gwynn was amazing,” Bill Bryk, Gwynn’s first manager said.
At that time, 3.141 hits were still a lifetime away. His career .338 average was a dream. His 790-to-434 walk-to-strikeout ratio almost laughable.
This Gwynn of the early 80’s – a third-round pick in 1981 – hadn’t even envisioned 10 stolen bases in a season, much less 56 or 319 over a lifetime.
A terrible fielder coming into Walla Walla, there was something that separated him from the rest – he worked harder than anyone at plying his trade.
“The first time I ever met him I was the All-Star manager and I had Eric Davis and Tony Gwynn on that team,” Eugene Emeralds manager Greg Riddoch recalled. “That was the first time I set eyes on him, and he was not a good outfielder.”
“Absolutely, he is right,” Gwynn laughed. “I was. That all-star game I had to play first base. I was the worst outfielder so they had to put me at first. He is right.
“Going into that first year I knew I had a lot of work to do. I was a terrible outfielder. I didn’t throw very well. I didn’t run good routes. Luckily for me, I had people who were willing to work with me and willing to come out extra to put in extra work with me.”
Bryk was part of that equation, teaching the fundamentals to a young player who played the role of sponge very well.
“Right off the bat I felt like he was a guy that I was going to learn a lot from,” Gwynn explained. “I felt very comfortable because he talked baseball all the time. I got so comfortable as a matter of fact – and I was only there a month and a half – that when they moved me up I really didn’t want to go.
“I felt I was learning so much about the game and its tendencies and nuances. Bill was great at giving me that stuff.”
Never satisfied, Gwynn would try anything to become a better hitter, fielder, and baserunner.
During that debut season, Gwynn switched to a lighter bat because he felt he was losing some of the balance and control he wanted in his swing.
He was hitting .360 at the time.
“He was a ballplayer who was just starting to make a name for himself in his first year,” Bryk said. “He was a special player and even more so a special person.”
“He was a natural hitter,” added Riddoch.
Gwynn looked at anything that would give him an edge. If there were a person in the stands who had advice for his game, he would listen.
Nothing was immediately tossed away. He found a friend in video as the years progressed and was able to pick up little things that most people take for granted – the double-look of a pitcher who was just doing it as a courtesy and never expecting you to actually steal was one of many things committed to memory. He would tape his at bats before it was fashionable so he could see his own tendencies and eliminate them.
Gwynn questioned it all.
“The next time I met him again I am the outfield coach for the San Diego Padres and he is one of my outfielders,” Riddoch noted. “I watched what he did everyday in spring training and thought, ‘No wonder this guy is a Gold Glover.’
“He made himself into a self-made man. When he was a rookie in the minor leagues he was not a good defensive player. He totally made himself into a great defensive player and of course everything else is history after that.”
“He would go the extra mile to make guys better,” Gwynn said of Riddoch. “And I know because I would tape my at bats. When you videotape stuff it would take time to go through and watch it. Me and Rid would be there everyday. Me and him would be looking at pitchers’ moves, looking at at bats, looking at other stuff.
“People wondered why or how I got better as a baserunner, I got better as a fielder, won Gold Gloves – it was because of Greg Riddoch and Bill Bryk.”
While ballplayers today rely on their talent, Gwynn saw it as a baseline for how good he could be. He never rested on his abilities. It started in Walla Walla. It continued for 20 years in the same organization. It is bronzed as he enters the Hall of Fame.
A day away from being inducted into the Hall of Fame, Gwynn is still in awe.
“It is a whole lot more than even I anticipated, Gwynn said. “The whole experience has been unbelievable and one I will never forget. It is electric.”