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From the Childhood moment when each learned to swing a bat, they have lived parallel baseball lives, heading to the same place as surely but separately as the steel rails of a train track. Each hits lefthanded and excels at hitting the ball to left. In Florida, Wade Boggs was taught by his father, Win, to wait as long as possible to swing at a pitched ball, a practice that honed his inside-out swing. One season in the minors Wade says he batted .332 while hitting just one ball to the right side of second base. In California, Tony Gwynn confounded the geography of his makeshift backyard field—a tree in centerfield and hardly any leftfield at all—by being an opposite-field hitter. "I have no idea why," he says. "It's my natural swing."
They made it to the big leagues within three months of each other in 1982, both without fanfare. They've been in lockstep ever since, and at week's end, after 4,704 combined games in the majors, Boggs, 41, and Gwynn, 39, had eerily similar numbers, not only of hits (both had 2,994) but also total bases (4,051 for Gwynn, 4,042 for Boggs). As they approached the career-capping milestone of 3,000 hits, Boggs and Gwynn can gaze back at a proud slate of accomplishments:
•Each hit better than .350 for four straight years, the only players to do so since 1931.
•Each won four straight batting titles, joining Rod Carew, Ty Cobb and Rogers Horns-by, the only other players to do so.
•They have been the preeminent contact hitters in an era gone gaga over homers. Only two players whose careers ended after World War II finished with 3,000 hits and fewer than 160 home runs—Lou Brock and Rod Carew. Boggs, with 117 homers, and Gwynn, with 127, will almost certainly join them.
With the finish line of 3,000 hits in sight, it would be fitting if Boggs and Gwynn got there closer together than any two of the previous 20 players who have reached the magic number. (That distinction now belongs to Tris Speaker and Eddie Collins, who reached 3,000 within 20 days of each other in 1925.) Not far behind Boggs and Gwynn is Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., who at week's end needed 32 hits to make it an unprecedented threesome for 3,000 in the same season.
"When I got to 2,000 [in 1993]," Gwynn says, "I still felt like I had to get to 3,000. If you're a contact hitter, the bulk of [your hits] are going to be singles. The holy ground for a contact hitter is 3,000 hits." It's probably safe to say that Boggs felt the same way because when they are asked to review their career milestones, Boggs, who is in his second season with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and Gwynn, who has spent his entire career with the San Diego Padres, tell stories that are often strikingly similar.
Boggs waited through 662 minor league games over six years before he made the big leagues, as a backup infielder with the Boston Red Sox in 1982. On April 26, in the opener of a doubleheader at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Boggs grounded a single through the hole at shortstop off a 1-and-2 pitch from White Sox righthander Richard Dotson. "I got the hit, came back in the dugout, sat down and [Red Sox second baseman] Jerry Remy comes by and says, 'You only got 2,999 more to go, kid,' " Boggs says. "It's something that has stuck with me ever since."
Eighty-four days after Boggs's first hit, Gwynn made his debut, in centerfield against the Philadelphia Phillies, after being promoted from Triple A Hawaii. "Fourth time I came up I got a fastball out over the plate [from lefthanded reliever Sid Monge] and lined it into left center," Gwynn says. "Bob Dernier was playing center. He dove, and it just went under his glove to the wall for a double. I got to second base and I felt pretty good. My first big league game and I got a hit. Pete Rose [the Phillies' first baseman] is trailing the play. They flash on the board, TONY GWYNN'S FIRST BIG LEAGUE HIT. Pete came over, shook my hand and said, 'Congratulations. Don't catch me in one night.' I remember it like it was yesterday. 'Congratulations' was enough, but the 'Don't catch me in one night' thing really stuck. And I just remember standing there thinking, god, wouldn't it be great to have a career like he did."