So, early in 1994,
only months after his father died of heart problems, Gwynn did what he has
always done. After he was assured by new ownership that the Padres did indeed
intend to compete, he told them he preferred to remain in San Diego. Prompted
by the Padres' suggestion of a contract extension, Gwynn told his longtime
agent, John Boggs, to negotiate one. Boggs, whose client was still under
contract for one more year at $4 million and who was without any leverage
whatsoever, went in for a deal. "He's a little difficult to represent,"
Boggs says, laughing.
"I would take
less to stay here," Gwynn says, "and the Padres knew it. They could
take advantage of it--they should take advantage of it--and they did."
Still, the Padres came through with $4 million a year through 1997, with an
option year and a bonus clause here and there. "They could have had me for
$3 million," Gwynn admits. "For what I do?"--he shrugs--"I'm
See, the Padres
don't understand him either. Here's one more Gwynn story from the nonbakery
division: In 1986, in a game at Montreal, Gwynn had just one hit in what would
be a 10--1 blowout. Frustrating, of course. But then the Expos, out of
pitchers, brought in Vance Law from second base to throw to Gwynn, whose
frustration went straight to humiliation when he grounded back to second.
"It's still on my mind," he says. People think rich contracts drive
him? Batting titles? "Vance Law," he says. "You probably don't know
him. But I carry that at bat around every day."
strike-shortened season of '94 was tragic for the numbers left hanging in the
ether of uncompleted history: Matt Williams's 43 home runs, Gwynn's .394. Had
the season played out, who knows what records might have been broken? You can't
project those kinds of things: A sweet stroke can depart just like that. But it
is fair to say that as the season was nearing its climax, Tony Gwynn was a
tough out. And he was looking forward to a run at .400 and the kind of
once-in-a-lifetime stretch when the media descend for a final look-see at one
of those seminal events they are obliged to cover en masse.
"There was no
pressure to that point," Gwynn says of the season's premature ending on
Aug. 12. "The pressure would have come in September. I had talked to Rod
Carew and George Brett, asked what it was like to make a run at .400. Both said
it was unbelievable, so tough to go about your business. Now, I'm not a Pete
Rose, a guy who thrives on that kind of attention. But I kind of wanted to go
through it, to get a taste of it. You don't really know what you're made of
until you do. I don't think I'd have been destroyed by it, but you can't really
say, can you?"
Well, yes, you
can. Gwynn would hardly have been destroyed by it. Even though he remains
amazed by big league attention--after a road trip, he will marvel at the
"deluge" of publicity that he attracts--he deflects it more naturally
than he knows. One imagines him, postgame, entertaining the press at his
cubicle, rolling his bat in his hands. "I go 4 for 5," he might say,
"average goes up one point! One point!" You can hear the squeak.
Still, it didn't
happen, did it? The best that came of the whole affair was a summons from Ted
Williams himself, an invite to his museum in Florida during the winter to talk
baseball. Williams, among other things, is Gwynn's favorite author. Gwynn first
got a copy of Williams's 1971 bible, The Science of Hitting, while he was
attending San Diego State. He has marked it up like a guy researching a Ph.D.
Passages are highlighted, margins are filled with notes. The cover page, which
shows a strike zone filled with baseballs, each of them with an average
attached ( Williams's estimate of a batter's stats if he hit pitches only in
that area), has been committed to memory. Gwynn rereads it two or three times a
year. "What I should do," he says, "is bring it with me on road
Rereading the book
before his .394 season is what started him thinking about turning on the inside
pitch a bit more instead of waiting to slap the outside pitch, his bread and
butter. "Worked," he says. "Had a chance to drive in 90
The meeting with
Williams was a lifetime highlight, although as usual, Gwynn was put on the
defensive. "We talked for half an hour," Gwynn says, "and I never
got a word in edgewise. Anyway, he's telling me how I 'block the ball
off'"--that is, throwing the bat in front of the ball, which often shoots
it to leftfield, instead of taking a hefty cut. "He says, 'I don't know
what you call it, I call it blocking it off. And I'm one who believes that
history is made from the ball inside.' I start laughing, but then I think he's
right," Gwynn says. "The guys you think about-- Henry Aaron, Reggie
Jackson, Mike Schmidt--hit the inside pitch. And he says to me, 'Big as you
are'"-- Gwynn is 5'11", 215 pounds--"'you should be hitting the ball
out.' I said, 'Wait a minute, you're getting into territory that's been a big
problem for me. No question, for most people, you're right. But if you don't do
it well, why focus on it?' We went around and around on that. Got into it a
This insistence on
home runs will always remain troublesome. Not that Gwynn, who has hit a mere 86
home runs in his career, doesn't acknowledge the charisma of the home run
hitter. But that persona just isn't him. "Those guys strike out 100 times a
year," he says. "I couldn't live with that. They've got to let it go to
do what they do, swing big, can't be afraid to fail. That's not me. I've struck
out 14 times this year, and I didn't enjoy that. You know what I was thinking
in the All-Star Game, up against [ Seattle Mariners fastballer] Randy Johnson?
Don't strike out. Get the barrel on the ball. I flied out, wasn't very
productive, but a moral victory for me. Type of guy I am, I guess."