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Jun 18 / King Kaufman

Tony Gwynn learned something new every day: How about you?

Tyler Kepner’s tribute to Tony Gwynn in the New York Times is worth your time because it’s a great piece, full of great stories about a great player who, by all accounts including Kepner’s, was a wonderful person as well.

But since I’m talking about it you’ve probably guessed already that I think there’s something in it that us scribbling types can make use of. A clue is in the head and subhead: “In a .338 Lifetime Average, Every Day Counted: Tony Gwynn’s 2 Hitting Secrets: Work and More Work.”

It’s nice to read Kepner’s stories about how nice Gwynn was. The Vanderbilt-Buster Olney story is really something if you’ve ever been around big-league baseball players and know how self-absorbed they tend to be. But this is what made my ears prick up: “Gwynn, a San Diego Padres right fielder who retired in 2001, said proudly that he learned something new at the ballpark every day.”

An acknowledged master of his art, possibly the best pure hitter since his friend Ted Williams, and Gwynn said he learned something new at the ballpark every day. And you can’t do that by accident. If you’re going to the same place every day, you’re going to get comfortable after a while. If you want to keep learning, you have to try. You have to be looking for things to learn.

Gwynn went to the same place every day, the ballpark, for 21 years in pro ball. A baseball season is a grind over seven-and-a-half, or, if you’re lucky, eight-and-a-half months, with rare days off. But Kepner writes that Gwynn never focused on the drudgery, always searching for new frontiers. Here, Kepner writes about him talking in 1994, at the age of 34, about younger players:

“They just feel like stuff is supposed to happen to them,” he said. “They’re not going to have to work for it. And that bugs me because I know how hard I had to work to get where I got. Sometimes they sit there in amazement at why I come out here every day. But I cannot let their way of thinking into my head.”

For Gwynn, the thrill was in the pursuit of perfection in a job built around failure. He tried to leave nothing to chance. Years before laptops and iPads, Gwynn would lug video equipment around the league, meticulously combing through his at-bats, discarding the rare clunkers and studying the gems.

He didn’t have to do that. Gwynn won his last batting title at the age of 37, when he hit .372. His swing was so good I bet he could have saved himself a ton of time and all that lugging of heavy equipment around and taken the same approach as everyone else and hit maybe .330. He’d have finished fifth in the league in hitting. Still awfully good for a 37-year-old!

You can fall into the same trap in this racket, thinking that because you’ve made it—to wherever it is you’ve made it to—you’re at cruising altitude and you no longer have to scratch and claw and grind like you did when you were just starting out.

That’s a good idea if you want to watch those young grinders scratch and claw their way past you.