Critics should look to Gwynn when judging Sandoval

Critics should look to Gwynn when judging Sandoval
June 16, 2014, 1:30 pm
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Sandoval can rake, no matter which plate he's protecting. He's fat, yes, but he's one of the 10 purest hitters in baseball.
Monte Poole

It happens every week of every month of every year. It happens every day. Somebody make the argument that Pablo Sandoval has to shed pounds or risk eating his way out of a brilliant baseball career.

I don't subscribe to that theory.

When I look at Pablo, I see Tony Gwynn, widely considered the best pure hitter of the last 30 years.

[RELATED: Padres legend Tony Gwynn passes away at 54]

Upon hearing of Gwynn's death Monday morning at age 54, a flurry of thoughts cascaded through my mind. I thought about what an artist he was at bat, about how genuinely cordial he was in interviews and how Tim Duncan's meticulously scientific approach to basketball reminds me of Gwynn's approach to baseball.

The sight of Duncan dropping in a bank shot is as "old school" as the way Gwynn would poke an off-field single to left – boring and efficient, yet also beautiful. Duncan collects NBA championships. Gwynn collected batting titles.

But I kept coming back to Gwynn's ability to hit a baseball with incredible consistency, despite the abundance of flab around his midsection. He was 5-foot-11, not particularly muscular, and generally carried about 230 pounds.

As a young reporter in the late 1980s, I went up to Gwynn before a Giants-Padres game at Candlestick Park hoping to find out how he could be so great despite battling the bulge. I believe I asked him something along the lines of whether he represents the athlete who is not equipped with the typically athletic physique.

I remember Gwynn laughing and nodding his head and telling me that his fellow ballplayers never stop ribbing him – and not always good-naturedly – about his portly frame. He spent a good 10 minutes explaining why excess weight is no hindrance to sound hitting. The most important element of hitting, Gwynn stressed, was hand-eye coordination. His was impeccable, whether he was 10 pounds overweight or 35 pounds overweight.

Gwynn said he would like to have had a 32-inch waist. He said he had gone on too many diets to remember. That he's lost weight, gained it back, lost it again and gained it back. Citing family history and multiple knee surgeries, he didn't think he'd ever be slender.

But Gwynn was grinning broadly when saying his love of food was a lot like his love of hitting.

I suspect this is common ground today's Sandoval shares with yesteryear's Gwynn. We're talking two superior athletes. Pablo can rake, no matter which plate he's protecting. He's fat, yes, but he's one of the 10 purest hitters in baseball.

Is Pablo's excess weight bad for his overall health? Of course it is. Does it affect his defense? Of course it does. But the obsession some have with his waistline ignores his effectiveness at bat.

Before he was stolen by cancer – something he attributed to chewing tobacco – Gwynn made an indelible impression on the game of baseball. He was a first-ballot inductee of Hall of Fame, an eight-time batting champ and an all-time gentleman.

What Gwynn proved to me was that sheer production should be the primary focus of a baseball player's evaluation. Some observers always will have something to criticize, whether it's Jerry Rice's 40-time or Russell Westbrook's court judgment or Sandoval's dining choices – even Barbra Streisand's nose.

Which completely misses the point. Excellence is rare and something to cherish. Sandoval, who already has one World Series MVP award, has set a standard for excellence and the only question is whether he can sustain it.

If he never achieves the accolades and individual heights of the late Tony Gwynn, there's no shame in that. Few have. Or ever will.

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