For a moment last Friday night, Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres seemed to have come up with the perfect solution to that nagging problem that depresses so many batting averages: being called out. With two down in the top of the fifth, Gwynn's sinking line drive at Candlestick Park had just been flagged down by San Francisco Giants centerfielder Brett Butler, who had to dive to reach the ball. But Gwynn stood on first base and refused to move. San Francisco first baseman Will Clark, who at that moment was just a percentage point ahead of Gwynn as the National League leader in hitting, with a .340 average, stood next to Gwynn until all his San Francisco teammates had trotted off the field, and then Clark, too, retreated to the Giants' dugout. Gwynn removed his batting helmet, made the safe sign and remained at first.
This situation might have persisted until the cows came home had the umpires not decided to confer among themselves. They eventually ruled that Butler had trapped the ball and conceded Gwynn his point—and his single. He now led Clark .341 to .340, a lead Gwynn would not relinquish for the remainder of the weekend.
Gwynn's hitting had been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season for San Diego until the Padres went on a tear beginning in late August, winning 19 of their next 24 games. In their weekend showdown at Candlestick against the National League West-leading Giants, San Diego won two of three games to stay alive in the race, five games back. However, the subplot of the weekend featured the competition between Gwynn and Clark.
It has always been considered bad form to be too obvious about counting your hits in the middle of a pennant race, and Clark steadfastly refused to admit that he was comparing averages with Gwynn. Maybe not, but even some Giants found that a little difficult to believe. "Winning the batting title would mean a lot to anybody, but it means even more to a guy like Will, who has power, because he doesn't bunt much or get many infield hits," said San Francisco batting coach Dusty Baker. "I'm sure he's got his eye on Gwynn."
Even Gwynn seemed to feel the batting championship might mean more to Clark, which seemed odd because outfielder Gwynn has a chance this season to become the first National League player to win three straight hitting titles since Stan Musial did it in 1950, '51 and '52. "This year is going to be the toughest year for me to win because Will knows how to handle pressure," says Gwynn. "There were four guys in it with me at the end of last season, but I didn't worry about them because they had never known what it was like to get up every morning and have to choke down some other guy's three-for-four with your corn flakes. Will's a great hitter who's never won the batting title, but I think he really wants it."
After leading the league in RBIs, with 109, but batting only .282 last season, Clark was determined to raise his average this year by hitting to all fields. "It's changed me a ton," he says. "It's made me a more complete hitter. You can hit the ball out of the ballpark the other way as easily as you can by pulling the ball. You just have to be a little finer in your execution."
Gwynn says he started peeking at the batting-race standings only last week, and did so reluctantly, still mindful of 1986, when he slumped in September and lost the crown. "That was the year I choked," he says. "I got so paranoid worrying about what everybody else was doing, reading the paper and seeing that [Tim] Raines and [Steve] Sax had gotten three more hits the night before, feeling them gaming on me. I finished third that year. I learned my lesson. I can't control Will Clark."
Sometimes not even Clark can do that. Opposing teams often find his distinctive swagger difficult to stomach, and on more than a few occasions he has been accused of hotdogging. When Giants third baseman Matt Williams hit a home run against the Mets' Frank Viola recently, Clark stood on second base, blowing a bubble with his chewing gum as he watched the ball go out and then slowly trotted home.
Yet so fierce is Clark's intensity that he takes even the most innocuous question as if he has just been accused of something. He responds with a voice that is a little too loud, as though he's trying to keep inquisitors at arm's length. "People are suddenly starting to talk about a batting race," Clark will say, his brown eyes burning like embers, "but where were you two months ago? It's been a race all season long." Unhappy now with both the question and his answer, he reverses fields rhetorically. "But it's not a batting race," he says, snapping this postulate off emphatically, "it's a pennant race."
"Will is a competitor," says San Francisco manager Roger Craig. "When he makes an out with a man in scoring position, he gets embarrassed." He isn't embarrassed often. When Clark scored his league-leading 100th run last Thursday, he became the first Giant since Willie Mays to have back-to-back 100-run, 100-RBI seasons. At week's end Clark ranked second in the league in hits (188), total bases (309), RBIs (109) and on-base percentage (.408). The longest he had gone without a hit this season was 11 at bats. Eleven. "He's one of those hitters that comes along once every two or three decades," says Craig.