SAN DIEGO — Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs insist they are not in a race for 3,00 hits. But if they were, a dead heat would be just fine.
“On the same day, at the same moment, the same second — that would be great,” Boggs said, envisioning the instant their pursuit for their mutual milestone comes to an end.
It would be fitting. The two grew up and always have played a continent apart. They never have faced each other in the regular season. Yet they always have seemed uniquely linked.
Since the first time each stepped into a major-league batter’s box and slapped a pitch into left field, they have had their careers tied together by a common thread. Their neck-and-neck chase for the 3,000th hit is just the latest example.
“There’s a connection between the two of us,” Gwynn said.
Said Boggs: “Our careers have paralleled each other for so long that it would be only fitting we get to 3,000 together. I think it’s great.”
The two future Hall of Famers took a break this week to talk about their shared experiences in the quest for 3,000 during a conference call set up by Major League Baseball. Though Gwynn, 39, and Boggs, 41, have been in the same ballpark at the same time barely a dozen times in their careers, for All-Star Games or exhibitions, their conversation flowed as smoothly as their batting strokes.
Into their 18th big-league seasons, the two are separated by a single hit. Boggs went 3-for-4 for the Tampa Bay Devils Rays on Wednesday night to push his career total to 2,992. Gwynn has 2,9991 hits, all with the Padres.
“For me, Wade was the guy who set the standard,” Gwynn said. “He was the type of hitter that I really wanted to be like. I was having success in the National League, but not at the level he had. He became the hunted, the guy I wanted to emulate.”
For Boggs, a career American Leaguer, Gwynn was the first name he searched for in the National League box scores.
“There’s always been a connection and a bond because we never had to compete against each other,” Boggs said. “I didn’t have to worry: ‘What did Tony do today? Is he going to pass me?’ I was rooting for him to win batting titles over there.
“I had to fight Rod Carew and George Brett on these guys over here. I got a chance to relax when I watched Tony on the highlights or on TV. I never had to treat him as an adversary. It was more like we were allies. He was doing everything I was, so I was pulling for him. It helps my stock when Tony does well.”
The statistical similarities are seemingly endless. Both broke into the big leagues in 1982 and found immediate success. Boggs hit .349 for the Boston Red Sox, then won his first AL batting title the next season. Gwynn hit .289 after a midseason call-up — the only time he has been below .300 — and won his first NL batting crown two years later.
Boggs has collected five batting titles, Gwynn eight. Boggs has a lifetime average of .328, Gwynn .338.
But it’s more than Hall of Fame numbers that unite the two. It’s also a wholesale dedication to their craft, a confidence in their ability and a fierce desire to succeed.
From the start, both players knew their own strengths better than any coach. Both are left-handed hitters who cover the outside part of the plate as few hitters have.
Gwynn could have cut a canyon in the infield between third base and shortstop as he took advantage of the “5.5 hole.” Boggs, with Fenway Park’s Green Monster as an inviting target, often aimed higher but also looked to go the other way first.
They were among pioneers of using videotape to fine-tune their swings and study pitchers, Gwynn probably more so than Boggs. And both were labeled as defensive liabilities as young players but worked tirelessly to become two-way players. Gwynn earned five Gold Glove awards in right field, Boggs two at third base.
There’s another common bond — this one somewhat esoteric. Both have been pitcher Sterling Hitchcock’s teammate for three seasons. Boggs played with him from 1993-95 on the New York Yankees, Gwynn the past three years in San Diego.
“There’s not a whole lot of difference,” Hitchcock said. “Neither one of them tries to do too much with the ball. They put the bat on the ball, and they know how to work the pitcher.”
Even in their differences, Gwynn and Boggs share a common influence — Ted Williams. Both read Williams’ book “The Science of Hitting” when they were teen-agers. Boggs started getting tutorials form Williams as a Red Sox minor-league in 1977. Gwynn started having discussions about hitting with Williams in 1992.
Boggs never came close to pulling the ball as Williams did, but he does have the same kind of eye. Williams is No. 2 all-time in bases on balls. Boggs moved into the top 20 this year.
“My father made me read his book when I was a junior in high school,” Boggs said. “Once I met him in 1977, I was able to put two and two together. The biggest thing I got out of it was patience and discipline.
“The pitcher is going to do the best thing he can to get you out, which is moving the ball the width of the plate. That’s no problem if you’re a patient hitter. I’m the type of hitter to go deep into the count. Ted stressed getting that good pitch to hit. It may come 1-2; it may come 2-0.”
Gwynn is a free swinger who feels he can handle pitches out of the strike zone, so he never took that lesson to heart. But it was Williams’ words that prompted Gwynn’s evolution from a primarily opposite-field hitter to one who uses the whole field and can jump on inside fastballs.
“In that first conversation,” Gwynn recalled, “he was trying to convince me that when you’re facing a guy you’ve faced a lot, when you have a pretty good idea of what they’ll do, you’ve got to look for a certain pitch in one zone. If you get it, you just let it go and don’t worry about the result.
“It’s OK to go up there and look for a pitch, look for an area and just let the swing go, don’t try to guide it. I’ve had a lot of success handling the inside ball, and that’s what he was talking about. You’ve got to let them know you can handle it, where before I was inside-outing that ball.
“But if you show him you can handle it (the inside pitch), that thoughts going to be in the pitcher’s head. Then he’s going to come back and pitch you the way you wanted him to in the first place, which is middle out, for the most part.”
Another hitter Boggs and Gwynn have consulted is Paul Molitor, the most recent member of the 3,000-hit club. Boggs talk to him during Molitor’s final season last year in Minnesota. Gwynn knows Molitor through their mutual agent, whose name coincidentally is John Boggs. The topic, no surprise, was what to expect when the 3,000 mark draws close.
“The biggest thing he said,” Wade Boggs recalled, “was to just enjoy the ride.”
Consider Gwynn and Boggs in a very exclusive carpool lane.
Published in the North County Times on July 30, 1999.