Master Batter

In the sun-splashed fanfare of opening day at Coors Field, the impeccably tailored promotions manager from Louisville Slugger committed an unthinkable gaffe. Amid much ceremony and clicking of camera shutters, Chuck Schupp handed a gleaming silver bat symbolizing the 1998 National League batting title to some guy named Larry Walker.

How could the man from Louisville be so brazen? Didn't he know that it is simply not possible for Larry Walker to win the batting crown? Hadn't he heard that Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa and Vinny Castilla and Mike Piazza and two dozen other top NL stars are equally incapable of doing it? Didn't the man realize that the only National Leaguer who ever takes home the silver bat is a moon-faced, five-foot-eleven-inch, 220-pound left-handed singles hitter for the San Diego Padres named Tony Gwynn?

As irony would have it, right-fielder Gwynn was standing in the visitors' dugout at Coors Field when the Colorado Rockies' right-fielder got his award. In ten minutes or so, the Padres and the Rockies would do high-altitude battle, and that's what Gwynn says he was thinking about--the game. If he was considering Walker at all, it was with a hint of sympathy. Since the start of the season, Walker had been on the disabled list with strained ribs, and he wouldn't be back in the lineup until the next day.

"It's unfortunate that he's hurt and not playing right now," Gwynn said later. "But he'll be back soon and..." Gwynn paused, "try to defend it."

In his seventeen-year career with the Padres, Gwynn has won eight league batting titles--more than any player in history except for a fellow named Ty Cobb, who did it twelve times. Only Honus Wagner and Rod Carew have matched the four consecutive silver bats Gwynn won from 1994 through 1997; only Cobb (nine) and Rogers Hornsby (six) had longer strings.

Gwynn's been an All-Star fourteen times, hit .300 or better in each of his last sixteen seasons and leads all active players in career batting average with .340. He's hitting a torrid .438 this early season, and sometime around his 39th birthday, May 9, he will become the first National Leaguer since the exemplary Cardinal star Lou Brock to amass 3,000 lifetime hits. As of Tuesday morning, Gwynn needed just 51.

The home-run heroics of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa may have lifted baseball out of its doldrums last year, and Cal Ripken Jr.'s consecutive-games streak is a testament to perseverance and loyalty in a world that lacks both. But if you're writing the history of art and sport in the twentieth century, it won't do to ignore the works of Anthony Keith Gwynn. He doesn't command the attention of the big boppers or the temperamental pitchers with their 90-mile-an-hour fastballs, but he's exactly what baseball needs: the ultimate professional.

Following last week's Coors Field opener, which the Padres won in the top of the eleventh inning via a three-run homer by reserve catcher Jim Leyritz, Gwynn strolled out of the trainer's room with aching knees packed in ice and a cup of draft beer in his left hand. For his part, he had gone to the plate six times that afternoon and produced for his club in time-honored Gwynn fashion: three singles, a timely base on balls and a screaming line drive that nearly tore the glove off the hand of Rockies right-fielder Lenny Harris.

Leyritz may have hit the winning homer. The lead runner when that blast came was number 19, Tony Gwynn.

"I wish I could sit here and say it was a standard day," he said. "But they all don't go so well. Right now I feel like I'm swinging good. Not trying to do too much. Trying to work the count. Trying to get a good pitch to hit. Trying to hit it hard somewhere. Right now I'm going pretty good. After a game like today, you don't want a day off. You want to keep it going."

To that end, Gwynn said, he would return to Coors Field early the next morning--an off day--go down into the indoor batting cage next to the visitors' clubhouse and spend fifteen minutes hitting baseballs off a tee. Then he would crank up the pitching machine and hit fast-moving baseballs. In all likelihood, two or three of San Diego's wide-eyed young players would come along. For them, it would be like watching Michelangelo paint; they might learn a few strokes of their own.

Gwynn would be paying penance of a sort and remarshaling his forces. In his fifth at-bat on Monday, after all, he had violated his own rules. He had overreached. "Most of the time I try not to do too much," he explained. "Try to do too much, I get myself in trouble. That's what I did. Game's tied. Looks like you're going into extra innings, so you take one shot. I got a good fastball to hit, and I just went all the way around it instead of just trying to get through it."

Tony Gwynn closed his eyes for a moment and gently swung his loosely clasped fists in front of him, remembering the towering flyball--his only mistake of the day--that he'd lofted to Rockies center-fielder Darryl Hamilton. There was contemplation in his moon face now--and a hint of agony. Perfectionists are always having little waking nightmares.

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