The Padres’ Five Greatest Hitters
Tony Gwynn (1982-2001)
Using one of the smallest and lightest bats in the majors and pounding out single after single with it, Gwynn gave all 20 years of his major league baseball life to the Padres and rightfully earned the title “Mr. Padre,” being the only player to be part of San Diego’s two pennants to date while ending his career with a .338 lifetime average, the highest of any player who logged time exclusively after 1950.
Gwynn has been attached to Southern California since his birth; he was born in the Los Angeles area and attended college at San Diego State—where he has also spent his post-Padre career as a coach. In his rookie 1982 season, the left-handed hitting Gwynn played in 54 games for the Padres and hit .289; it was the first, last and only time he would ever finish below .300. A meticulous student of the game, Gwynn pored over videotape of his swings to improve his game; such tireless research paid off, as he won eight National League batting titles—tying Honus Wagner for the most in league history—was selected to 15 All-Star Games and amassed 3,141 hits—over 2,000 more than the second guy (Garry Templeton) on the all-time Padre list. His greatest season was a bittersweet experience—hitting .394 and rising in August of 1994 when the players’ strike prematurely ended the year, costing him a chance to become the first player since Ted Williams in 1941 to finish the year hitting over the .400 mark.
Light and speedy when he arrived with the Padres, Gwynn was a major basestealing threat, swiping a career-high 56 bags in 1987—including a NL record-tying five in one game. As the years wore on, Gwynn’s legs slowed as his waistline expanded, but he remained a major threat at the plate and added a rare burst of power at age 37 in 1997 when he set career marks with 17 home runs and 119 RBIs for the Padres while keeping his standing as the game’s ultimate contact hitter—striking out only 434 times in his two decades of service.
Gwynn’s popularity was such that he was deemed an untouchable when the Padres went through a controversial fire sale of their star players in 1993. He remained beloved by Padres fans after his retirement; the team retired his number 19 just three years after he left the game, and he was the first to be immortalized in bronze at Petco Park with a statue of his swinging likeness in the ballpark’s “Park at the Park”; more prestigiously, Gwynn was a near-unanimous selection for Cooperstown on the first ballot. The local community has also rallied around Gwynn as he has fought off cancer of the mouth, likely brought on by excessive use of chewing tobacco as a player. Sadly, that battle ended in June 2014 when he died at age 54.
Dave Winfield (1973-80)
The Padres’ first true talent, on the cusp of superstardom when he bolted for a lucrative but highly ill-fated tenure with the New York Yankees, the gangly (6’6”) Winfield brought unabashed athleticism, charity and, most importantly, true character to a San Diego team that had been perceived throughout its expansion years as a bunch of clueless rejects trying to look good in brown-and-yellow uniforms before painfully small crowds in a giant stadium.
Everyone wanted Winfield as he graduated from the University of Minnesota; besides the Padres, two pro basketball teams fought for his services as did football’s Minnesota Vikings, albeit more as a promotional stunt given he never played on the gridiron in either high school or college. He accepted with the Padres and, producing modest numbers at first, gradually became a star presence and broke out in 1979 with a .304 average and personal bests with 34 home runs, 118 RBIs, 85 walks and 10 triples.
Off the field, Winfield was an infuriating sort, sporting a slick, brash personality that became a litmus test for Padres teammates trying to tolerate his ego; but he was also an exceptionally enterprising individual who set up charities for young kids in need.
After a statistical drop-off in 1980, Winfield signed a mega-deal with George Steinbrenner’s Yankees that got off to an ugly start when Steinbrenner dumbfoundedly failed to grasp that the $16 million, 10-year deal he signed would actually increase by $7 million through a cost-of-living escalator clause. That Winfield bombed in his first postseason with New York didn’t help, only intensifying Steinbrenner’s efforts to get “even” with him; that obsession got the best of The Boss, who eventually hired a street rat with ties to the mob to get whatever dirt he could on Winfield. When Steinbrenner’s plot was uncovered, baseball suspended him for four years.
Winfield’s post-Yankee career was considerably happier; he won a World Series for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992, and back home in Minnesota collected his 3,000th hit playing for the Twins from 1993-94. He was named to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility and returned to his roots by wishing to enter as a Padre—but only after he had been hired by the team for $1 million as a consultant. Cooperstown frowned on the perceived bribery and changed the rules so that it, not the inductees, would determine which team would represent a new member of the Hall.
Fred McGriff (1991-93)
The highly consistent and potent power hitter of nearly two decades came to the Padres in a trade that benefitted one team (Toronto received Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar to put a major accent on its mini-dynasty of the early 1990s) and was dealt away in a 1993 deal that greatly benefitted another (given away to Atlanta, bumping up the Braves’ run for the NL West title), but in between he gave the Padres two-plus years of expectedly solid productivity.
In each of his two full years playing at San Diego, McGriff cleared 30 home runs and 100 RBIs and walked around 100 times; he led the NL in 1992 with 35 jacks, and his stature at the plate was such that he drew a league-high 26 intentional walks in 1991. (McGriff was, in fact, the last player outside of Barry Bonds to pace the NL in free passes until 1999.) Though he put up equally sharp numbers in both seasons, McGriff only got named to the All-Star Game in 1992, and finished sixth in MVP voting that year.
McGriff was off to a similar start in 1993—hitting .275 with 18 homers and 46 RBIs halfway through the year—when he was dealt to the Braves as part of owner Tom Werner’s massive housecleaning of star talent, given away for three players who rarely made a dent on the team.
Adrian Gonzalez (2006-10)
A native of San Diego (although he suited up for Mexico in the 2009 World Baseball Classic), Gonzalez developed into a major star presence in the late 2000s for the Padres, but suffered from the awful timing of having to call voluminous Petco Park his home; as a result, his overall numbers were tempered by the beautiful but pitching-friendly conditions at the Padres’ new home in downtown San Diego.
Gonzalez came to the Padres in a 2006 trade with Texas, where Mark Teixeira blocked his path to everyday play at first base. It didn’t take long for Gonzalez to rise to the occasion in San Diego; he hit .304 with 24 homers in his first full season with the Padres in 2006, then only increased the power in the years to follow—peaking in 2009 when he belted 40 pitches over the fence. But only 12 of those homers occurred at Petco Park, a stark reminder of the vast field dimensions (coupled with the deadened marine air flowing in from the bay waters across the street) that continuously kept Gonzalez from producing sensational, OMG-like numbers. In his five years with San Diego, Gonzalez batted .267 with 57 homers at home—while hitting .307 with 161 blasts on the road.
Making matters worse, the three-time All-Star was afforded little protection in the lineup, the lone star carrying the Padres as best as he could under the circumstances; he eventually began drawing up to and over 100 walks and became one of baseball’s most frequent targets for the intentional pass. The mild-mannered Gonzalez took it all in stride, if for anything else to keep his sanity in check, but after making it clear he wouldn’t sign a new contract with the Padres, he was traded with a year left on his current deal after the 2010 season to the Boston Red Sox, where the relatively friendly conditions at Fenway Park were thought to be far more suitable for his offensive appetite. Oddly, the expected prodigious numbers failed to materialize, and he never hit more than 28 homers in any of his eight years to follow with either the Red Sox or the Dodgers (for whom he was dealt to in 2012).
Nate Colbert (1969-74)
The St. Louis native can certainly relate to Gonzalez, but on an even more exaggerated scale. He was the lone power source during the Padres’ infant years, twice hitting 38 homers—and in 1972 exposed just how much of the offensive load he was carrying when he knocked in nearly a quarter (111 of 452) of the team’s runs to set a major league record.
Plucked out of the expansion draft after a few cups of coffee with the Astros, Colbert made his presence immediately known with the Padres and would hit 163 homers over his six years in San Diego; he remains, by two over Gonzalez, the franchise’s all-time home run leader. His greatest day occurred on August 1, 1972, when he hit five homers and knocked in 13 runs during a doubleheader at Atlanta—tying Stan Musial’s record for the most longballs in a twinbill.
A three-time All-Star with San Diego, Colbert saw his career derail after hitting just .207 in 1974. Released afterward by the Padres, he couldn’t make a go of it over the next two years for three different teams and was done in baseball barely after turning 30; not only did he never play for a winning team, he toiled almost exclusively for teams that finished in last place over his 11-year career.
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