Mariners reliever Joe Beimel, then a 24-year-old rookie with the Pittsburgh Pirates, was preparing to make the 12th start of his major league career on Aug. 11, 2001 when the scouting-report discussion turned to Tony Gwynn.
“There isn’t really a way to pitch him,” Beimel recalled being told. “He can hit everything, so maybe you should just try throwing it right down the middle.’”
Reluctantly, Beimel did just that on his first pitch. Predictably, Gwynn gashed it for a double.
In the next at-bat, Beimel was able to get Gwynn out with a changeup — a pitch he said he’s thrown “maybe” five times to a fellow left-hander in his 13-year career. Then, in their third and final matchup that day, Beimel hung a slider over the plate that Gwynn belted over the fence at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park.
It was the final home run of Gwynn’s Hall of Fame career with the San Diego Padres.
Monday morning, after a long fight with cancer, Gwynn died at the age of 54.
“I actually took pride in the fact that I gave up the final home run,” Beimel said Monday afternoon, as the Mariners prepared to open a series against the Padres at Safeco Field. “I kept watching the box scores the rest of the (2001) season to see if he’d have another one, and he didn’t. So I was like, ‘Yes!’”
Gwynn’s death shocked many in and around baseball.
“Obviously waking up to that kind of news was pretty devastating,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. “Tony was not only a person that I considered a friend but, as far as hitting was concerned, he was a mentor as well. I look back now, sometimes you take things for granted, but to think that this guy took time out of his day every time we came to town, or when he came to town, to sit down and talk to somebody like me about hitting and the game of baseball, it just blows your mind.
“And to think that we lost him at the age of 54 is really, really tragic.”
Gwynn’s younger brother, Chris, is the Mariners’ director of minor-league operations.
“I haven’t had a chance to talk to Chris yet,” McClendon said. “I’m going to give him some time because I’m sure he’s grieving right now, but there’s a lot of memories I’d like to share with him.”
Gwynn retired after the 2001 season with 3,141 hits and eight National League batting titles. His .338 career batting average is highest of any player who began play after 1939.
McClendon marveled at Gwynn’s low strikeout numbers — 434 in 10,232 plate appearances, an average of just 29 per season.
“You can look at all his numbers, and all his stats and everything, but the one that really stands out the most to me — and I know he was a great hitter in a lot of different respects — but in a 20-year career he struck out 434 times. Almost 10,000 at-bats. That’s just phenomenal. That’s 20 strikeouts a year. Hell, I did that in a week. …
“What a tremendous loss for baseball. My heart goes out to his family.”