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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.

"You play sixteen, seventeen years," he said, scolding himself. "And you still make those kinds of mistakes. So tomorrow morning I gotta go back to the basics. The basics are what have always worked for me. Then I just go out and play. I still love to play."

San Diego manager Bruce Bochy, a former Gwynn teammate in his playing days, smiles at that. "Tony's Tony. You know he's been a constant for us for years, and this season the same thing. He's swinging the bat well again. He just gets better and better. I think when he gets closer to the 3,000 hits, we'll pay even more attention. We're all aware that it's going to happen this year, and we're all proud of him. I know, myself, I feel privileged just to watch him day in and day out."

For a few precious days last October, casual baseball fans who don't know Tony Gwynn from Tony Bennett got the chance to watch him play in the World Series--only the second one of his long career. They saw the cannonball body, the splay-legged, bat-waggling batting stance, the torment he inflicted on New York Yankees pitchers with his patience at the plate. They saw the beautifully compact swing. They saw what Tony Gwynn calls "the basics" elevated to the level of art.

The unbeatable Yankees may have swept the Series. But Tony Gwynn batted .500 against them--eight hits in sixteen at-bats.

Thanks to a fire sale rivaling the Florida Marlins' dismemberment in 1997, this year's Padres team is an empty shell of the club that upset the powerful Atlanta Braves for the 1998 National League pennant. Pitching ace Kevin Brown is now the $100 million man up in Los Angeles. Slugger Greg Vaughn is in Cincinnati, hard-hitting third baseman Ken Caminiti back with Houston, stalwart center-fielder Steve Finley an Arizona Diamondback.

Meanwhile, Tony Gwynn plays on in the only major-league uniform he's ever worn. "When I look at that now," he explains, "I don't look at it as loyalty. I look at it as just being happy, because loyalty is a two-way street. They gotta want you, and thus far, it's worked out for me." He laughs. "This is where I want to be, and they still want me. That's not to say it's going to be like that forever. I still love playing the game, and if things change, I'm going to try and have some fun with the change and not put pressure on myself."

In the last four seasons, Gwynn has suffered a variety of painful leg injuries, and he spent 44 days on the bench last season. If the Padres ever do let him go, he's likely to wind up as a designated hitter in the American League. After all, who could resist a modest legend--even at age 40 or 41--who owns the second-highest batting average since World War II? Only Boston's Ted Williams, a member of the Tony Gwynn admiration society, was more consistent at the plate.

For now, Gwynn isn't thinking about records--not even the 3,000-hit plateau. As usual, he's concentrating on how to help his team, a mixture of aging veterans and promising kids. "We can't control the things that happen to a club in the off-season," he says. "Especially in this era, with [team] payrolls getting pretty close to $80 million." He shakes his head and laughs at the notion of that. "For a team like us, we're going to be up and down. Some years we're going to have some quality players here, some years we're not. And a lot of it's just because of money. But we make do with what we have, and we go out and play hard. As a veteran, it's part of my job to help the younger players, and that's how I take it. I sure want to make it easier for them than it was for me. All we can do is go out there and play the best baseball we can."

The kind of baseball Tony Gwynn plays could well bring him another batting title or two and, with a little luck, a third World Series shot. "Things turn around quickly in today's game," he points out. "All we need is another good year, and who knows--maybe our bankroll can increase. Anyway, I don't think we're that far off."

 

In the meantime, Gwynn will likely reach the 3,000-hit mark sometime in May, with two other major-leaguers, Ripken and Wade Boggs, close behind. "But I'm not even thinking about that yet," he says. "I'm just playing. As time goes by, eventually I'm going to get there. But for now, I'm just enjoying myself. I just want to be known as a guy who played the game as it's supposed to be played. Period. I'm not flashy. I'm a day-in, day-out type of guy. I suppose the longer you see me play, the more you appreciate what I do--because it ain't pretty."

Of course, beauty is still in the eye of the beholder.


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