Late last Friday afternoon at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, the National League's reigning Most Valuable Player, Terry Pendleton of the Atlanta Braves, stepped out of the visitors' dugout to take batting practice. Pendleton did what he always does before taking BP: He squeezed the handle of his bat to see how it felt, he pine-tarred the handle, and he squeezed it again. He was ready. Almost.
He strode purposefully to the third base side of the batting cage, where he waited for the Padres' sweet-swinging Tony Gwynn to finish his round of cuts. And then as Gwynn emerged from the cage, Pendleton rubbed his arm on Gwynn's uniform shirt as though it were a rabbit's foot.
"What are you doing?" Gwynn demanded.
"The way you guys are swinging," Pendleton said, "I want it to rub off on me."
It has been that kind of gee-whiz season for the top four guys in the San Diego batting order, all of whom entered last weekend hitting at least .320. They exited the weekend with slightly lighter averages after facing the Braves' Steve Avery, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz and losing three in a row. But it has been 42 years since any four hitters in a lineup each batted .320 or more for a season; shortstop Tony Fernandez (who was at .318 after Sunday's game), rightfielder Gwynn (.349), third baseman Gary Sheffield (.315) and first baseman Fred McGriff (.317) are contending to do just that—albeit with two thirds of the season left.
In San Diego they're calling them the Four Tops, and the P.A. system at Jack Murphy blares out one of three Four Tops hits—Same Old Song, Reach Out I'll Be There or I Can't Help Myself—after each Four Tops hit. "Can't they find any new ones?" McGriff good-naturedly groused on Saturday night. "I'm so sick of those songs."
With 144 hits in their first 30 home games, the Tops have made themselves the most fearsome first foursome in the league. "What I see," says Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, "is as good a top of the lineup as I've ever seen in the game."
It starts with Fernandez, who after off-season thumb surgery is playing pain-free for the first time in two years. He's followed by Gwynn, who struck out all of four times in his first 212 at bats. After Sheffield's arrival via a March 27 trade with the Milwaukee Brewers, his bat so impressed Padres manager Greg Riddoch that he decided to bat Sheffield third. His decision was a gamble, because the 23-year-old Sheffield was coming off a whiny, injury-plagued .194 season, but Riddoch has gotten a nice payoff: As of Sunday, Sheffield was fourth in the National League in total bases (110).
Next up is Crime Dog, which is what autograph-chasing kids call McGriff, thanks to ESPN's Chris Berman (the nickname comes from cartoon character Crime Dog McGruff). McGriff is having what is, for him, a very normal year: second in total bases (115) and second in home runs (12).
Can the Four Tops keep the beat? Well, Gwynn is Gwynn, and McGriff will hit his 30 homers and drive in his 100—write it down. Fernandez has hit .300 before, but not in five years. And Sheffield is the X factor. "No one can predict how he'll finish," says San Diego batting coach Merv Rettenmund, "but all I know is he hits everything hard, and the ball makes an unusual sound coming off his bat. It really whistles."