The gentlemen's quality program at Morse High in San Diego had never honored an athlete as its guest speaker in the program's 13-year existence. So room 204 was buzzing on the morning of Jan. 30, when Padres All-Star rightfielder Tony Gwynn, probably the most popular and successful player in San Diego sports history, walked in.
In his usual gregarious, disarming way, Gwynn spoke for half an hour to this group of 30 admiring young men. His message was: "Do what you want with your life; it's all up to you." As Gwynn counseled, he smiled and laughed with his audience, until he began fielding questions. Suddenly the discussion turned to Gwynn's career and where his own life was heading. The tone of Gwynn's voice changed. He became edgy, defensive.
"I have a lot of time left," he said. "I'm going to do things a lot of people never thought I could do. That's the type of person I am. People put labels on you: 'He's only a singles hitter, he doesn't drive in runs, he doesn't hit homers.' Hey, they can say those things, but sooner or later I'm going to do it. When I do, you'll strip those labels off me and put on more. But I'm doing what I want to do. I'm playing the style of play I play best. Even though a lot of people might not like that, I'm sorry, that's just the way it is."
Imagine that. A four-time National League batting champion, a lifetime .329 hitter, a six-time All-Star, a five-time Gold Glove winner, a Hall of Famer in the making, and he feels the need to justify himself and his career to a bunch of adoring teenagers.
The 1990 season did that to Tony Gwynn. The events of last year have made him guarded, gun-shy, distrustful—a sad transformation for one of baseball's most good-natured people. Gwynn was accused by some of his teammates and, to a lesser degree, by the media, of being selfish, overweight, a whiner and one who indulges the press. In a team meeting in late May, Gwynn was trashed by some of his fellow players. Tension increased all summer, and in early September a plastic Tony Gwynn figurine was found mutilated and hanging in the Padres' dugout. Gwynn's season ended on Sept. 16 in Atlanta when he crashed into the outfield wall and fractured a finger. He refused to come to the ballpark for the rest of the season. His .309 average tied him for sixth in the league, but that was his lowest average in his seven full major league seasons. Wherever he turned, Gwynn heard rumblings that he'd "lost something."
"It was a long year for the team," says San Diego pitcher Calvin Schiraldi, "and an unbelievably long year for Tony."
And unbelievably unexpected. Gwynn, known as one of the game's most dedicated players, seemed such an unlikely candidate for abuse. His accessibility and candor had made him a media favorite. A leader in the community, he had always given generously of his time to helping kids. He was a hero in San Diego, and his life there had been a love affair.
That changed. The blasts from teammates stung Gwynn. "I saw him go into a shell," says Fred Lynn, a Padres outfielder last year. Gwynn avoided the press from mid-September through December. "I always had to answer someone's criticism, and I was tired of it," he says. "Ask the guy who made the criticism, not me."
Gwynn says he still loves San Diego and its fans and is excited about helping the Padres win in '91. But he knows the new season docs not bring an entirely clean slate. "All that stuff from last year is still hanging over my head," Gwynn says. "Somebody will always be judging everything I do, based on what these guys said. Even the people who've seen me play every day for the last eight years will judge me on what was said. It won't be any easier. I think it's going to be tougher. It's like I'm branded."
The Padres are certainly trying to make things easier for Gwynn. On Feb. 21 new general manager Joe McIlvaine signed him to a three-year, $12.25 million contract extension, which included a $1 million signing bonus. Says Gwynn. "I'm very appreciative of that, but I also think I'm deserving. It makes me feel good."