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Bruce Newman
September 25, 1989
Last week Will Clark and Tony Gwynn squared off in a battle for a batting—and a division—crown
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September 25, 1989

Way Above Average

Last week Will Clark and Tony Gwynn squared off in a battle for a batting—and a division—crown

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Clark may one day be the hitter against whom all others are measured, but for this decade, in the National League, the touchstone has been Gwynn. "People tend to judge whether I've had a good year by whether I win a batting title," says Gwynn, now battling for his fourth crown. "But every year that I've won it—except '84—we've been out of the division race, and it's easier to do little things that help you win a batting title when your team's out of it."

On their second turns at bat on Friday, Gwynn and Clark established their priorities. Gwynn grounded a ball to the right side of the infield to score Bip Roberts from third, and Clark hit a sacrifice fly deep to centerfield to bring second baseman Robby Thompson scampering home. Gwynn, however, also stroked three singles in five at bats, while Clark went 0 for 3 in the Padres' 5-3 victory.

Before Saturday's game was called because of rain, San Diego pitchers Calvin Schiraldi and Bruce Hurst were watching the Boston-Oakland game on TV in the Padre clubhouse. Both have played for the Red Sox, and their former teammate Wade Boggs was in a face-to-face showdown with the Athletics' Carney Lansford in the American League batting race. Lansford finished the week at .337, just behind Minnesota's Kirby Puckett, who was on top at .338. Boggs, who was suffering from a muscle bruise on his right elbow—the result of being hit by a pitch on Friday night—would end up at .327.

"If he was leading the race right now," said Hurst, gazing up at Boggs on the TV screen and laughing, "he'd be outta there."

"If he was leading it," added Schiraldi, who was now also laughing at Boggs, "he'd be way outta there."

It is unlikely that anyone would ever confuse such paragons of teamwork as Gwynn and Clark with Boggs. On the other hand, it would be difficult to bet against Boggs, who is seeking his fifth consecutive batting title and the sixth of his career. Though he trailed Puckett and Lansford, it was the competition that sounded demoralized. "I figure if I hit .356 last season and couldn't win the title, I'll never win one," said Puckett last month. Boggs, who batted .357 or better each of the last four seasons, tended to agree. "Let's face it," he says, "if I were having a typical year, it wouldn't even be close."

Boggs went into the season still trying to explain his relationship with the nymphamous Margo Adams. He then found out that the Red Sox were ready to trade him if they could find the right offer—which they couldn't—and got off to a slow start. "I'm sure there were people looking at me in May and saying, 'Look, Wade Boggs is going to hit .270 this year,' " he says, apparently still without a real strong grasp of what people were looking at him and saying last May. Boggs says he learned a lesson: "You've got to hit good the whole season—at the beginning, in the middle and at the end—if you're going to win a batting title." Also, never date litigious ladies who are not your wife. Especially talky ones.

If either Lansford or Puckett wins the batting title, it would be the first time a righthanded batter has won the American League crown in a full season since 1970. (Lansford won it in the strike-shortened '81 season, hitting .336 for Boston.) The Angels' Alex Johnson edged the Red Sox's Carl Yastrzemski on the last day of the '70 season by getting hits in two of his first three at bats and then, with the title assured, allowing Angel manager Lefty Phillips to sit him down. Yastrzemski never complained publicly about losing that way, but one Boston newspaper, showing great restraint, labeled Johnson's removal from the game "the most disgraceful act in the history of the American League."

Actually, American League batting races have seen other disgraceful, or at least distasteful, acts. In 1976, for example, George Brett and Hal McRae of the Royals entered the last game of the season in a virtual dead heat, but by the time Brett came to bat in the ninth inning, he needed a base hit to pass McRae. Brett lofted a routine fly, which Twins leftfielder Steve Brye allowed to fall in front of him. The ball bounced over Brye's head for an inside-the-park home run. McRae grounded to short and finished with an average of .3320 to Brett's .3333.

After McRae pulled up at first base, he gestured and shouted toward the Minnesota dugout and had to be restrained when Twins manager Gene Mauch came onto the field. McRae later implied that racial prejudice had decided the outcome of the competition. "I know they let the ball [Brett hit] drop," he said. Brye contended he had simply played too deep, and after a brief investigation, the league office allowed the matter to, well, drop.

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