ILLUSTRATED, September 18, 1995
TONY GWYNN DOESN'T
BRAG ON MUCH, EXCEPT MAYBE his mother's cooking. Even at that, he doesn't pull
for the fences. That is, it's not a matter of Vendella Gwynn's being the best
cook in the world, only that she bakes the best pecan pie in the state of
California. See, even bragging-wise, he only aims to make contact. � So, with
his San Diego Padres on a trip to Los Angeles, Gwynn prepared to deliver. He
phoned his mom in nearby Long Beach, said he had bragged on her pies and asked
her to bake a pair for the postgame spread. Vendella was furious at her son's
presumption. "I could bake them," she said to him, seething, "but
what if they're no good? You're just going to embarrass me."
Furious or not, she
baked a pair of pecan pies, and they were added to the postgame smorgasbord.
Now, anybody who has ever seen baseball players attack a spread is reminded
anew how recently we've been promoted from the animal kingdom. The pies were
consumed just like that, without anyone pronouncing any more judgment than one
of those artery-clearing thumps to the chest.
As with any
postgame meal, it was probably enough that no one got hurt, and all Gwynn could
do afterward was examine the empty pie tins and report to his mother that when
all was said and done, nobody got embarrassed that he could tell.
A typical Gwynn
family production, when you think about it: the pie story as defining metaphor.
Like his mom, Gwynn is motivated by fear of failure, produces small events in a
reliable fashion and is, despite 14 seasons of 1-for-3 work at the plate, as
humble and as taken for granted as a pecan pie in a postgame spread.
Tony Gwynn is
talking, talking, talking. He is a .400 talker, the only one in baseball. His
wife, Alicia, the school chum he only later recognized as something more than a
batting-practice pitcher, says the man doesn't make two peeps when he's at
home. "Oh, he might come out of the game room all of a sudden and say,
'What's for dinner?'" she reports. But sitting in front of his cubicle, six
hours before a game, rolling a bat in his hands, he won't shut up, not when it
comes to baseball. You can locate him from around corners, since all his
stories end on a high-pitched squeak.
" Mike Schmidt
once said, 'You can always teach a guy to hit .300,'" Gwynn begins,
"'but you can't teach him how to hit it out of a ballpark.'" He rolls
the bat. "People want to see home runs. At first I was annoyed by that. But
now I see, basically, he's right. Took me a long time to grasp it. I mean, I
hit .370 in 1987, and I finished eighth in the MVP voting. I couldn't
understand that then. Last year I hit .394, and I finished seventh. I'm getting
the picture. But it annoyed me for a long time."
If no longer
annoyed, he remains defensive. The motives of a contact hitter, even one of the
best ever to play the game, are always suspect. "One thing I've found is
that we're called selfish more than anybody else," he says. "It's
happened to me. It's happened to every contact hitter who's played the game.
It's just a by-product of what we do. Anytime you're trying to do something
perfect, so focused on what you do--well, it's not always pretty."
nonbakery division: In 1991 Gwynn was cruising toward his fifth batting title,
the one that would have separated him from Bill Madlock and Roberto Clemente.
Batting titles were not then, or ever, a matter of casual interest to the
Gwynn was batting
.337, even on an increasingly bad left wheel, playing for a typically mediocre
San Diego team. His title, if properly protected, was in the bag. And because
knee surgery was inevitable, his father, Charles, suggested--insisted--that
Gwynn retire for the season. "You're not helping yourself, you're not
helping your team," Charles barked at him. "Sit down and win your