Why they call Gwynn `Mr. San Diego'
Posted: Tuesday October 20, 1998 07:04 PM
SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Tony Gwynn's chin is speckled with gray stubble, his cheeks are chunky and his body has spread comfortably in all directions, like the city he's played for his entire career.
They've grown up together, Gwynn and San Diego, and the personality of one is a reflection of the other. Quiet. Successful. Downright decent.
He could have left anytime, forsaken the balmy breezes for bigger money and a higher profile in New York, Boston, Chicago or any of a dozen other places that would have loved to see him win a batting title in their lineup.
But Tony Gwynn stayed home for 17 years, perfectly content to be Mr. San Diego. Only one active player in baseball has played longer with a single team. Cal Ripken Jr. has been in Baltimore for 18 years.
If Gwynn, at 38, is bigger these days -- like this city that sprouts new tract homes every day -- he is still the best pure hitter in baseball. He still has those soft, strong hands that can do anything with a bat. He still has the eyes that can read a fastball or sinker and seem to slow it down so that he's waiting on it with time to spare. He still has that sharp mind, honed by years of playing and practicing and thinking about every aspect of hitting, to know what to do in each situation.
It was once said of Gwynn that he had "a body by Betty Crocker." And that was when he packed only 200 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame. Nowadays at 220, he's thicker around the middle, the thighs, heck, all over. His black and white batting gloves spill out of his back pocket as if they won't quite fit anymore.
And yet, at the plate, Gwynn's movement is effortless, fluid, his hips and legs and wrists and arms all perfectly synchronized, nothing wasted. If his knees and Achilles tendon didn't bother him, he could still put on a show with a basketball, as he did when he starred as a point guard for San Diego State.
Despite the injuries this year, he hit .321, an average most other players will never reach. For Gwynn, it was a steep drop from the .372 that earned him an eighth NL batting title last year.
Yet for much of his career, Gwynn has labored, if not in obscurity, away from the heat and light of bigger cities.
"People have told me on many occasions that if I had done the things in New York that I've done here, I'd be more famous," Gwynn said as he stood by the batting cage preparing for Game 3 of the World Series against the Yankees. "That's one of the reasons I'm still here.
"I always liked laying low, being one of the guys. I've had to be out front sometimes, a team spokesman, and it's uncomfortable. For me it was an easy decision, a selfish decision, to stay. I'm happy here."
Gwynn lives in a sprawling, Mediterranean-style home on a bluff in nearby Poway. He and his wife, Alicia, whom he met in elementary school in Long Beach, 70 miles up the coast, have two children, 16-year-old Anthony II and 13-year-old Anisha.
Four other teen-agers live with them, Tony's niece and nephew and two friends of his son who were having troubles at home.
"Tony wanted to make sure they finished their schooling, so they moved in with us," Alicia told the San Diego Union Tribune recently.
Gwynn will talk for hours about hitting or anything else to do with baseball. His voice has a pleasant, folksy Southern sound -- a little like an Alabama or Texas accent, maybe a touch of former roommate John Kruk, a West Virginian -- though he's lived in Southern California all his life. When he laughs, which he does often, it's somewhere between a high-pitched cackle and a body-jiggling guffaw.
But Gwynn clams up when asked about the many things he does to help people.
He's not looking for publicity or even a pat on the back for the Tony and Alicia Gwynn Foundation, established in 1994 to help the Casa de Amparo shelter for abused children, the YMCA, Police Athletic League and other charities.
He doesn't want to talk about winning the 1995 Branch Rickey Award for outstanding community service by a major leaguer, or being named "Most Caring Athlete" by USA Weekend magazine in 1997, or winning San Diego's Roberto Clemente Man of the Year award in '97 and again this year.
"I just don't want to talk about that stuff," Gwynn said.
Which is exactly why he is so well liked in San Diego.
"The best thing about Tony Gwynn is that he hasn't changed since 1983," said manager Bruce Bochy, a teammate of Gwynn's back then. "He has that infectious laugh, that childlike quality, that love of life and baseball. He enjoys people and spends so much time helping people. He's become a leader in his community. That's why they call him Mr. San Diego."
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