This Ball Player Comes Out Swinging
Tony Gwynn scores in another record-setting season
LOS ANGELES — For the 13th consecutive year, Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres will represent the National League against the American in tonight's major-league All-Star Game at Jacobs Field in Cleveland.
The stocky Gwynn looks more like a softball player than a baseball star. He carries 220 pounds on a 5 ft., 11 in. frame that some say is even shorter.
Yet when the left-hander gets a bead on a thrown ball, he causes the same kind of problems for opposing teams as Stan Musial once did during 22 years with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Like Musial, the left-handed-batting Gwynn can smack the ball to all fields. His 2,690 career hits could probably cover every inch of every National League park like wall-to-wall carpeting.
He's the defending, defending, defending (as in three) National League batting champion. A fourth consecutive title this year (his .394 average trails only Larry Walker's .398) would give him eight overall and tie him with Hall of Famer Honus Wagner for the NL lead.
The major league record is 12, held by Ty Cobb.
But Gwynn isn't especially focused on winning another National League batting title, nor does he aim to be the first batter to reach the .400 mark since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941.
"Before the 1977 season opened, I happened to look at my record and realized that I hadn't made 200 or more hits since 1989," Gwynn says. "So I made that my No. 1 priority for this year and current projections are that I'll make it. If 200 hits also win me another batting title, OK. [He has 130.]
"But I don't think one more batting championship is going to change how baseball feels about Tony Gwynn. By now everybody knows I can hit. And in another three years I expect to have collected more than 3,000 base hits."
Gwynn didn't mention that there has never been a modern-day player with 3,000 hits who hasn't been elected to the Hall of Fame.
Asked to explain the consistency that has produced .300-plus batting averages with the Padres for 14 consecutive years, he replies:
"I've always had a quick bat and I've always been able to see the ball well. I've had writers tell me about Hall of Famer Paul Waner, who reportedly saw every ball as though it were the size of a grapefruit. The size of the ball never changes for me.
"But I have learned to pick up the ball as it leaves the pitcher's hand to the point where I can tell immediately if it's a fastball, a curve, or a changeup.
"I've also learned over the years that a hitter constantly has to make adjustments. Otherwise, the pitchers get ahead of you. For example, I watch myself on videotape all the time and I can see when I'm doing something wrong. Nobody has to tell me."
Even though Padres manager Bruce Bochy bats Gwynn third, Tony says he'd much rather be hitting second.
"I know what I do well, and part of my success has come from using the entire field in which to hit safely," Gwynn volunteers. "I'm a bat-control hitter and batting second is a bat-control position. When you're hitting No. 2 and there is a runner on first base, you are going to get more pitches you can drive. The third position is more for a guy who hits for power."
Had Gwynn ever noticed any particular point in the season when he hits better than at other times?
"Over the years June and July have always been great months for me," Tony says. "On the other hand, August and September are what I call my break-even months. I still manage to keep my average up, only it's harder.
"Because everybody in baseball already knows it, I don't mind confessing that I have to work extra hard against big left-handers who throw hard and consistently get their breaking stuff all over the plate."
Baseball probably also knows that Tony has hit .350 or better in his last four seasons.
The only rap against Gwynn is that he doesn't hit many homers and that only once has he ever driven in as many as 90 runs. This year, however, he's ahead of schedule in both categories, with 13 homers and 71 RBIs.
Although Gwynn batted .394 for the Padres in 1994, any chance he had at hitting .400 disappeared when baseball went on strike in August for the rest of the season. "I probably could hit .400 someday in the big leagues," he says. "but if you analyze me as a hitter, I'm really not a very good candidate.
"For example, every time I go to the plate, it's with the idea of getting a base hit. So I don't walk a lot. The year Rod Carew almost hit .400, he had a ton of infield hits, many of them bunts. The thing is I don't bunt, and any infield hit I get is a fluke."
Several times over the years Gwynn has talked hitting with Carew, Musial, and Williams. "I love to talk hitting with Williams," Gwynn says.
"He's great and he's into analyzing everybody. But as a line-drive hitter, I've never felt that I had much in common with Ted. He was about power and not swinging at anything outside the strike zone. Williams liked to pull the ball, where I like to use the entire field. Actually what I do at the plate is more like what Musial did."
The one thing the San Diego State graduate is sensitive about, although he hides it well, is his weight. He gets kidded about it all the time, particularly by his teammates.
But Gwynn was fast enough to be picked as a guard by the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Clippers in the 1981 National Basketball Association player draft. He also stole 56 bases for the Padres in 1987. Less than a month ago he hit a bases-loaded, inside-the-park home run against Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium.
"Occasionally, during my playing career, I would get into a hitting groove for a week," says Davey Lopes, the Padres first base coach and former all-star second baseman.
"I felt like no pitcher could get me out. With Gwynn, it's different. Tony will go four or five weeks at a time with two and three hits a game. Actually it happens quite often."