San Diego rightfielder Tony Gwynn, who at week's end led the National League with a .396 average, doesn't look like the average major-leaguer. At 5'11", 195 pounds, he's not in fighting trim as much as he's fighting to stay trim. Until recently, Gwynn's idea of baseball strategy was to take two Big Macs and hit to left. "Tony and McDonald's have always been good friends," says his father, Charles. "I guess it was right for him to be drafted by the Padres."
San Diego owner Mrs. Ray Kroc, whose late husband founded the golden arches, is rapidly developing a franchise of her own, for it has become apparent that Gwynn, who turns 24 this week, doesn't hit like the average major-leaguer, either. Through Sunday he led the league in on-base percentage (.479) and hits (40) and was second in runs scored (21) and ninth in slugging percentage (.515). He was also seventh in steals (eight). "It looks like an easy game when he has the bat in his hands," Padre manager Dick Williams says. Adds batting coach Deacon Jones, "At his age, the only other guy I can think of who had that kind of bat control was Rod Carew."
While running up some impressive numbers—he hadn't had two consecutive hitless games since last July and had struck out only twice in 101 at bats this season—Gwynn has completely baffled Padre opponents. "We've faced him for a year and a half and we haven't figured him out," Atlanta catcher Bruce Benedict says. "Nothing we've tried has worked. It's tough to make adjustments when he uses the whole field." Los Angeles defensive scout Charlie Metro, noting Gwynn's 12-for-28 performance against the Dodgers this year, says, "Looks to me like we'll have to use a softball defense, an extra man. We set defenses for him and pitched him that way, and he'd cross us up and go the other way."
Gwynn, who throws and bats left-handed, has a natural inside-out swing that sends most of his base hits up the middle and to the opposite field. However, he went to the Puerto Rican League last winter expressly to work on pulling the ball, then came home in January and spent two hours a day in a batting cage until spring training. The result has been 13 hits to right or right center, including his third major league homer April 25 off San Francisco's Bill Laskey. "Most clubs don't pitch me in," Gwynn says. "It doesn't bother me if they do. I can turn on the ball and shoot it up the gap. If they pitch me in, fine. If not, fine."
May 13, 1984
Gwynn's blazing start, which earned him National League Player of the Month honors for April, has impressed Tony himself. "I'm usually a slow starter," he says. "At least for me, hitting .400 is impossible. You can't stay at that level for a whole year, so you may as well realize it."
For years, Gwynn was better known as a basketball player. Despite leading the California Interscholastic Federation in hitting (.563) in 1977, his senior year at Long Beach Poly High, Gwynn was passed over in the '77 draft. No matter—he had already signed a basketball scholarship with San Diego State. He twice led the Western Athletic Conference in assists and was good enough to be drafted by the San Diego Clippers in the 10th round of the '81 NBA draft. Earlier that day the Padres had made him their third-round pick in baseball's draft. "I'm the only player to be drafted by two teams in the same city on the same day," Gwynn says with pride.
He was always a hitter. "Every two weeks I got paid, so every two weeks they got a new Wiffle Ball," his father says. "They"—Charles Jr., 25, Tony, and Chris, 19—were weaned on backyard Wiffle Ball, then graduated to sockball, an invention of theirs that was played with old socks wrapped tightly with rubber bands. They were lessons well learned. Charles Jr. was drafted out of high school by Cleveland in 1976 but chose to play for Cal State-L.A. instead. He wasn't re-drafted. Chris, a sophomore at San Diego State this year, was hitting .379 with 16 homers and a school-record 82 RBIs for the No. 13-ranked Aztecs at the week's end. In a preseason exhibition game between the Padres and Aztecs, Chris outdid his brother by belting out a home run and a double. Even so, Aztec coach Jim Dietz calls Tony "the best pure hitter I've ever seen."
Gwynn didn't even play baseball until his sophomore year. That's when San Diego State shortstop Bobby Meacham, now a Yankee Triple A farmhand, saw Gwynn star in a summer league all-star baseball game and told Dietz, "That Gwynn kid on the basketball team can really hit. We never got him out."
In three seasons Gwynn hit .301, .423 and .416, and his first appearance his senior year has become Aztec folklore. On Friday night, in the basketball season finale, Gwynn had 16 points and 16 assists as State defeated New Mexico 92-84. On Monday, he had six hits and nine RBIs in a doubleheader sweep of Southern California College.
Gwynn might have gone higher in the '81 draft, but there were doubts about his defense. He didn't have any, however. "I was terrible," Gwynn says. "When I was in Double A, I couldn't throw from centerfield to second base. I used to hate to practice throws before the game."
In the year and a half after he signed, Gwynn battered pitchers at every level—classes A, AA, AAA and the Arizona Instructional League—before being called up by San Diego on July 19. "I went two for four with an RBI and a run against Philadelphia in my first game," he recalls. "After I got the second hit, Pete Rose said to me, 'What are you trying to do, catch me after one night?' He shook my hand, and I've got a picture of that hanging in my living room."
Gwynn was batting .271 on Aug. 25 when he broke his left wrist diving for a fly ball against Pittsburgh. Although he returned Sept. 13 and batted .348 in his last 16 games, he averaged below .300 for the first time. He rebounded to hit .368 in the Puerto Rican League that winter before breaking his right wrist in the same fashion on Dec. 30.
Gwynn began last season in Class AAA Las Vegas and was called up by the Padres in June. He struggled early but hit .333 after July 25 and had a league-high 25-game hitting streak. He finished the year at .309, 101 points above his weight. And then Gwynn finally decided to do something about that. Gone were the daily visits to McDonald's for a Big Mac with an occasional Filet-O-Fish sandwich on the side. Gone was the six-pack of Coke a day to wash it all down. He even cut back on his tin-and-a-half-a-day Skoal habit. "Now it's fish, chicken and vegetables," he says. "I used to hate vegetables, but they're not so bad."
The Padres are happy with a thinner, if not thin, Gwynn. "We didn't demand that he lose weight," Williams says. "He hit .300 that way. Heck, maybe we'll have him lose a couple of more pounds and he'll hit .500."