PHILADELPHIA -- The greatest hitter of his era has spent the past 14 years putting up numbers out of a 1930s time warp. But now, just over the horizon -- he's just two away after getting three hits last night -- Tony Gwynn can finally see the round number that will define his career:
Three thousand, as in 3,000 hits.
Other men have been there (21, in fact). Other men have done that. But no hitter of this generation will have done 3,000 the way Tony Gwynn will have done 3,000.
"People tell me that 3,000 puts me in select company, but I think I'm probably in select company already," said Gwynn, who had two singles and a grand slam in last night's 7-6 loss to the Cardinals, putting him two hits short of 3,000.
No hitter born in this century will have gotten to 3,000 in fewer games or at-bats than Gwynn. In history, only Ty Cobb and Nap Lajoie got there faster -- and they played when gloves were made of sheet rock. Even Wade Boggs, with his .328 lifetime average, will have taken almost 150 more games to reach 3,000.
No hitter born in this century will have 3,000 hits and a higher lifetime batting average than Gwynn (.338).
No hitter who has played his entire career since the invention of the designated hitter has reached 3,000 hits without spending a sizable chunk of his career in the American League. But Gwynn will.
We could go on and on. But you get the idea. Tony Gwynn has been more than just a hitter. He has been a hit machine.
For some, the 3,000th hit officially chisels their images on their Hall of Fame plaques. But if Gwynn -- with his eight batting titles, 16 straight .300 seasons and .338 average -- wasn't a Hall of Famer already, you might as well bulldoze the entire village of Cooperstown, N.Y.
To have his lifetime average fall below .300, this man would have to go 0 for his next 1,142 at-bats.
So at this point, for the great Tony Gwynn, the numbers don't really matter anymore. And how many players can say that?
"You get to 3,000 hits, that puts you among 22 guys in the history of the game who got 3,000 hits," Gwynn said. "That speaks volumes by itself. But I'm not worried about that. I'm still playing. So wherever I end up, that's fine.
"I'm tied all-time for most batting titles [in the National League]. I'm in the top 20 in batting average. I'm in the top 10 in singles. So to me, it's not about padding your stats and making it look good, like you're the best of all time. It's just about doing what you love to do and doing it till you've had enough."
And Gwynn is far from having had enough. True, he may have spent eight weeks on the disabled list this year with a calf injury. And his current .315 average would be his lowest since 1988. But even at 39, he doesn't see that 3,000th hit as his final act.
"I just want to keep on going and see how far I can go," he said.
Pete Rose's all-time record of 4,256 hits is way off in the distance. Yet people still bring that one up to the hit machine. And the hit machine finds that pretty darned hilarious.
"I don't think that's realistic at all," Gwynn said. "That would take eight more years. I'm 39 now. I don't want to be playing at 47. But it's out there. I know it's there. And the best way to approach it is, you just do the things you've always done. And when that passion for the game is gone, I think I'll know then it's my time."
If he can play two more years, Gwynn should rank among the top five NL hit men of all time, behind only Rose, Stan Musial (3,630), Hank Aaron (3,600) and Willie Mays (3,283). As upscale baseball neighborhoods go, you can't beat that one. And someday soon, people will start looking at 3,000 hits in the National League a lot differently than they look at 3,000 hits in that other league.
"I'm going to be the first guy since Lou Brock to get 3,000 hits exclusively in the National League," said Gwynn, who hit his third career grand slam last night. "And that means something to me. The last few guys who have done it -- Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor, George Brett, Eddie Murray -- all had their shot at getting some hits as a DH, and I've done it in the National League. So I'm pretty proud of that fact."
But wherever he plays, whomever he faces, one thing never changes: Tony Gwynn hits -- .347 against right-handers, .321 against left-handers, .343 at home, .333 on the road, .341 at night, .331 during the day. He owns hits off Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton and Phil Niekro. He has more hits off Greg Maddux (35) than he does against any other pitcher. So pitchers look at him as a freak of nature.
"In 1997, I actually threw him a pitch that he swung through," the Phillies' Mike Grace once said. "It was one of the proudest moments of my career."
But most pitchers have no idea how he looks at them. So we asked him.
On the pitcher he most hates to face: "Denny Neagle [.182 lifetime]. I always hated facing him. I just don't see the ball real well."