Tony Gwynn was just too natural a hitter to pass up baseball
Outfielder Tony Gwynn of the first-place San Diego Padres, who leads the National League in hitting, will tell you without any hesitation that growing up he much preferred the nonstop action of basketball. In fact Gwynn, who was also drafted in 1981 by the San Diego Clippers, still thinks he could make it as a point guard in the National Basketball Association.
Baseball was something Tony did when he couldn't find anyone to play pick-up basketball against. Although he did enjoy wearing out pitchers with his bat, defensively his warranty would expire in the time it took him to run from the dugout to the outfield. And his throwing arm had all the velocity of a pop gun.
''Considering my background and the casual way I treated baseball as a kid (he didn't play college ball until he was a sophomore), I never thought I would be in the majors and hitting as well as I am right now,'' Gwynn told me. ''When reporters ask me about my chances of winning a batting title this year, I really don't know what to say. But I can tell you this: it's not something I think very much about. Mostly I'm just glad to be here.''
Although Tony hit .309 for the Padres last year, his season didn't actually begin until June 21 - the result of a wrist injury he incurred while playing winter ball. Nevertheless, after 86 games and 304 at bats, he says that every team San Diego played was still pitching him away, hoping that he'd go fishing for bad balls.
''I don't know why they stayed with that strategy against me, but after a while you can get used to almost anything if you see it enough,'' Gwynn recalled. ''I don't mean that hitting in the big leagues is easy, but when they keep making the same mistakes against you, it isn't that hard to take advantage of the situation.''
However, when Gwynn started this season for the Padres, things had changed radically. Now pitchers were coming inside on him, jamming him on his fists and forcing him to make adjustments.
''At first I wasn't ready for anything like that,'' Tony said. ''Pitchers that I had hit pretty well last year were suddenly getting me out. In a way, it was probably a break because it forced me to adjust. But I don't mind telling you that for a while I struggled.''
Deacon Jones, the Padres' batting coach, says the biggest difference between last year and this for Gwynn is the improvement Tony has shown as a pull hitter.
''Whenever you come across a natural hitter like Gwynn, you never really want to change his basics because you might mess him up,'' Jones explained. ''Kids who are born with the ability to level a bat on a ball don't need a lot of help. Also we've been happy all along with the fact that Tony is smart enough to spray his hits.
''But at the same time we figured if we could teach him to pull the ball once in a while, a lot of his hits just inside the line would probably go for extra bases,'' Deacon continued. ''It would also force opposing outfielders to play him straightaway or risk having him go the other way against them.''
When a couple of reporters asked Tony if he wouldn't someday like to add power to his list of batting accomplishments, he replied: ''Well, you'd like to be able to do a lot of things. But for me to hit with power would mean changing my swing and my whole attitude about getting on base and right now I'm not willing to take that gamble.
''Now if you were talking about my brother Chris who is trying to make the US Olympic baseball squad, I'd agree that power is the way for him to go,'' Gwynn added. ''Chris will make the majors someday. And while he might never have my average, he'll be a much more dangerous hitter in terms of breaking games wide open.''
While everyone agrees that Tony Gwynn is a natural with a bat in his hands, he still needs a road map occasionally in the outfield.
''When the Padres signed me in 1981, I couldn't throw a ball on a line from the outfield to second base,'' Gwynn admitted. ''Oh, I could loop the ball to the shortstop if I really tried. But from the standpoint of fundamentals and arm strength I wasn't very good.
''After two years up here with the Padres and part of a third, I still have trouble throwing well sometimes and I still misjudge balls in the field,'' he admitted. ''But I have learned from my mistakes and there is no reason why I won't eventually become a good outfielder.''