Revered milestones eluded Gwynn, Williams in 1994
Where regret should linger, only indifference resides. These days, reliving the 1994 season makes Matt Williams feel simply one way.
“It was a loooong time ago, man, a long time,” Williams said. “I can’t believe it’s been 25 years. That’s crazy.”
In a season lost to history, the stoic slugger was denied a chance to make some of his own, having hit 43 home runs in 115 games with the San Francisco Giants. Sweet-swinging San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn had a similar circumstance.
Both men were chasing revered milestones, Williams on track to become the third player to hit 60 home runs or more in a season and Gwynn closing in on a .400 batting average, when a players strike brought the campaign to a screeching, and eventually permanent, halt Aug. 11.
But in the moment, neither player was hung up on glory. They were consumed by goals larger than themselves. They cared more about their teams, and their sport.
“It wasn’t about a personal feeling so much as it was about a group,” Williams said. “A strong, united group that wanted to push our game forward.”
A creature of habit, Jim Riggleman poured himself coffee and scratched out some simple math on a napkin in his Houston hotel room.
The Padres manager usually put pen to paper to jot down lineups or tweak the rotation. But on Aug. 9, 1994, Riggleman had a different dilemma to solve.
How Gwynn could hit .400.
On June 8, he was hitting .376. Over the next two months, he went 85 for 209 (.407), using a steady string of line drives and well-placed grounders to bump his average to .392. During a trip to Cincinnati, teammate and current Angels manager Brad Ausmus asked Reds infielder Barry Larkin why everything Gwynn hit seemed to trickle into the outfield.
“His bat was so late coming through the zone that (infielders) would be a half-step short getting to those balls that they would field,” Ausmus said. “He just could wait so long because he had quick hands, great eyes.”
With only three games against the Houston Astros before the strike, Gwynn needed to go 9 for 12 or better. He began the first night with a double in the first inning and single in the sixth.
“He was so hot,” Riggleman said, “you knew it was possible.”
Gwynn batted in the eighth with runners on first and second and no outs. The score was tied 2-2. Rookie left-hander Mike Hampton was on the mound. Fixated on history, Riggleman was evaluating the matchup in his head when Gwynn walked up to him with a question.
“Do you want me to bunt them over?” Gwynn said.
Riggleman was floored. Not since Ted Williams in 1941 had a player hit .400. In all the time since, only Rod Carew (.388 in 1977) and George Brett (.390 in 1980) had come close.
“He was willing to sacrifice that opportunity to do what was best for the team,” Riggleman said. “For a team that was probably 30 games out of first place.”
Riggleman waved Gwynn off and insisted he swing. He grounded into a double play.