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Ron Fimrite
April 14, 1986
Tony Gwynn speaks softly and swings a tiny bat, but posts some hefty numbers
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April 14, 1986

Small Stick, Tall Stats

Tony Gwynn speaks softly and swings a tiny bat, but posts some hefty numbers

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Tony Gwynn was onto something. At least he thought he was onto something, and he had to give it one more try before spring training started. So he climbed into his blue Mercedes and drove down from his splendid home high in the hills above and beyond the city to the San Diego School of Baseball, which is tucked away in an inconspicuous shopping center not far from San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. The school wouldn't open for another hour, but Gwynn, a part owner, had his own key. He was wearing an old San Diego State Aztec jacket and his Padre baseball pants.

He selected a bat on this February day, a very small one, from behind the counter, then stepped into a batting cage. For a hitter who has won a batting championship in 1984 and whose major league average is a snappy .325 for four seasons, the 25-year-old Gwynn is an uncommon worrier and tinkerer. "He's very critical of himself," says Padre batting coach Deacon Jones. "At times, I think, too much so." Gwynn himself is amused by his own fretting. "Sometimes I think all this stuff I'm doing is overrated, that maybe it's easier just to go into the season without all this," he said, assuming his pigeon-toed, lefthanded stance. "But I've been doing it so long, I can't stop now."

Gwynn's difficulty pulling pitches to rightfield has long nagged at him. Not that he can't do it when he puts his mind to it. His Padre teammates are still talking about the ninth-inning home run he rocketed into the rightfield pavilion at Dodger Stadium last April 28 that beat a previously unhittable Fernando Valenzuela 1-0. Even Gwynn, who may well be the most disarmingly modest man of talent in all of baseball, likes to talk about that one. "It was like the biggest hit I ever got," he recalled.

Sure enough, Gwynn is working on getting the barrelhead of his bat out over the plate quickly. Every pitch the machine fed him was lined sharply to the right side of the cage. After 175 swings—a modest workout for a man who some days takes as many as 600—he stepped out of the cage, radiating with sweat and guarded optimism. "Last year, I improved my home runs by one [from five to six]," he said, chuckling. "This year, if I could get to double figures, it'd be great. We'll see."

To hear Gwynn recite his shortcomings, you would think you were listening to the lamentations of a rank busher struggling against all odds to stay in the game as a utility man or pinch runner. By Gwynn's accounting, his hands are too small, his throwing arm too weak, his stomach too full. He plays out of position and misses the cutoff man. He doesn't hit with power, and he has no patience at the plate. He gets thrown out stealing too often, and he hits into too many double plays.

To hear anybody else, including some who have a pretty fair idea of what a quality baseball player should be, Gwynn is just putting in the required time before he crosses the threshold of the great Hall at Cooperstown. "Even at his young age, he's as complete a player offensively and defensively as you'll find," says his illustrious teammate Steve Garvey. "He's just something special, the kind who comes around once every few years," says Jones. "To show you how good he is, they say he had a bad year in '85. Bad year? Well, .317 is not too shabby, baby."

"He's already one of the best hitters in the game," says his manager, Steve Boros. "And he's worked at it so hard, he's made himself one of the best defensive outfielders."

Gwynn is also considered the ultimate team player. When curmudgeonly Dick Williams finally elected not to return as the Padre manager the first day of spring training, some of his former players, including even the ordinarily diplomatic Garvey, gave vent to long-held resentment of the departing skipper. Not Gwynn. Instead, he praised Williams for teaching the Padres how to win. "He was very gracious," says Boros, "but then, Tony Gwynn could play for Genghis Khan." Some say, of course, that that's exactly what he had been doing.

Gwynn may have trouble pleasing himself on the ball field, but he remains the happiest of men. "I consider myself one of the fortunate ones," he says. "I'm so thankful to be able to stay in San Diego, where I'm close to my parents and where I went to college. I love San Diego. As a freshman in college, I would never have thought of being in the situation I'm in now. Here I am in this big house with a wife [Alicia] and two children. I've got everything I want. My mom and dad worked for 40 years between them, and they always wanted a Cadillac. Last month, I went down and got them one. You should've seen their faces. I feel good. And all because I've been blessed with the ability to hit a baseball."

Gwynn started hitting baseballs, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, when he was a little nipper playing with his two brothers, Charles Jr., now 27, and Chris, 21, in the backyard of their parents' home in Long Beach, Calif. "We'd just cut up socks on the line, put rubber bands around them and call them baseballs, even though they were the size of golf balls," Gwynn recalls. "The pitcher would only be 15 feet away. I figure if you could hit one of those things, you could hit a baseball." Gwynn could and so could his brothers. Charles, now an elementary school teacher, played third and the outfield at Cal State L.A., and Chris is a Dodger farmhand.

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