Tony Gwynn was onto something. At least he thought he was onto something, and he had to give it one more try before spring training started. So he climbed into his blue Mercedes and drove down from his splendid home high in the hills above and beyond the city to the San Diego School of Baseball, which is tucked away in an inconspicuous shopping center not far from San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. The school wouldn't open for another hour, but Gwynn, a part owner, had his own key. He was wearing an old San Diego State Aztec jacket and his Padre baseball pants.
He selected a bat on this February day, a very small one, from behind the counter, then stepped into a batting cage. For a hitter who has won a batting championship in 1984 and whose major league average is a snappy .325 for four seasons, the 25-year-old Gwynn is an uncommon worrier and tinkerer. "He's very critical of himself," says Padre batting coach Deacon Jones. "At times, I think, too much so." Gwynn himself is amused by his own fretting. "Sometimes I think all this stuff I'm doing is overrated, that maybe it's easier just to go into the season without all this," he said, assuming his pigeon-toed, lefthanded stance. "But I've been doing it so long, I can't stop now."
Gwynn's difficulty pulling pitches to rightfield has long nagged at him. Not that he can't do it when he puts his mind to it. His Padre teammates are still talking about the ninth-inning home run he rocketed into the rightfield pavilion at Dodger Stadium last April 28 that beat a previously unhittable Fernando Valenzuela 1-0. Even Gwynn, who may well be the most disarmingly modest man of talent in all of baseball, likes to talk about that one. "It was like the biggest hit I ever got," he recalled.
Sure enough, Gwynn is working on getting the barrelhead of his bat out over the plate quickly. Every pitch the machine fed him was lined sharply to the right side of the cage. After 175 swings—a modest workout for a man who some days takes as many as 600—he stepped out of the cage, radiating with sweat and guarded optimism. "Last year, I improved my home runs by one [from five to six]," he said, chuckling. "This year, if I could get to double figures, it'd be great. We'll see."
To hear Gwynn recite his shortcomings, you would think you were listening to the lamentations of a rank busher struggling against all odds to stay in the game as a utility man or pinch runner. By Gwynn's accounting, his hands are too small, his throwing arm too weak, his stomach too full. He plays out of position and misses the cutoff man. He doesn't hit with power, and he has no patience at the plate. He gets thrown out stealing too often, and he hits into too many double plays.
To hear anybody else, including some who have a pretty fair idea of what a quality baseball player should be, Gwynn is just putting in the required time before he crosses the threshold of the great Hall at Cooperstown. "Even at his young age, he's as complete a player offensively and defensively as you'll find," says his illustrious teammate Steve Garvey. "He's just something special, the kind who comes around once every few years," says Jones. "To show you how good he is, they say he had a bad year in '85. Bad year? Well, .317 is not too shabby, baby."
"He's already one of the best hitters in the game," says his manager, Steve Boros. "And he's worked at it so hard, he's made himself one of the best defensive outfielders."
Gwynn is also considered the ultimate team player. When curmudgeonly Dick Williams finally elected not to return as the Padre manager the first day of spring training, some of his former players, including even the ordinarily diplomatic Garvey, gave vent to long-held resentment of the departing skipper. Not Gwynn. Instead, he praised Williams for teaching the Padres how to win. "He was very gracious," says Boros, "but then, Tony Gwynn could play for Genghis Khan." Some say, of course, that that's exactly what he had been doing.
Gwynn may have trouble pleasing himself on the ball field, but he remains the happiest of men. "I consider myself one of the fortunate ones," he says. "I'm so thankful to be able to stay in San Diego, where I'm close to my parents and where I went to college. I love San Diego. As a freshman in college, I would never have thought of being in the situation I'm in now. Here I am in this big house with a wife [Alicia] and two children. I've got everything I want. My mom and dad worked for 40 years between them, and they always wanted a Cadillac. Last month, I went down and got them one. You should've seen their faces. I feel good. And all because I've been blessed with the ability to hit a baseball."
Gwynn started hitting baseballs, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, when he was a little nipper playing with his two brothers, Charles Jr., now 27, and Chris, 21, in the backyard of their parents' home in Long Beach, Calif. "We'd just cut up socks on the line, put rubber bands around them and call them baseballs, even though they were the size of golf balls," Gwynn recalls. "The pitcher would only be 15 feet away. I figure if you could hit one of those things, you could hit a baseball." Gwynn could and so could his brothers. Charles, now an elementary school teacher, played third and the outfield at Cal State L.A., and Chris is a Dodger farmhand.
Gwynn went to San Diego State on a basketball scholarship and didn't get to play baseball until his sophomore year. Then he made a discovery of vast significance. Like many young players, he believed that the bigger the bat, the longer the hit. At the time he favored a 34-ounce weapon. Then, searching for a batting tee in the State locker room, he picked up a 32-inch, 31-ounce bat and found that it, in fact, suited him to a tee. With his tiny truncheon, he hit .423 and .416 his last two college seasons and was drafted third by the Padres.
It was a big day for him. The Padres chose him in the morning and the San Diego (now L.A.) Clippers drafted him that afternoon. "I'm a trivia question," says Gwynn. For good measure, he received a call later that same afternoon from a heavily accented voice informing him that he had also been drafted by San Diego's professional soccer team, the Sockers. Gwynn was prepared to believe almost anything by this time, but the last call was a gag, perpetrated by assistant baseball coach Steve Salvo.
Gwynn wasn't always the agonizingly analytical hitter he has since become. In college he couldn't even identify the pitches he was hitting all over the lot. In the minors, he subscribed to the theory propounded by his manager in the winter leagues, Harry Dunlop, now a Padres coach: "See the ball, hit the ball and run like hell." When he was with Walla Walla, another outstanding hitter in the Northwest League, Eric Davis, now with the Reds, approached Gwynn before a game and asked his secret. Gwynn gave him the Dunlop dictum. "Oh, that's all there is to it, huh?" said a bemused Davis. "Well, at least let me look at your bat." Gwynn handed him the 32-incher. "This thing's a toothpick," shrieked Davis, and he walked away shaking his head.
Gwynn was in the big leagues more or less to stay in '82 after hitting .328 the first part of the season for Triple A Hawaii of the Pacific Coast League. He had gotten all the breaks so far. He was to get two more. On Aug. 25 he broke his left wrist diving—or, as he prefers, "tripping and falling"—for a fly ball in Pittsburgh. He missed three weeks. Then, on Dec. 30, playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, he broke his right wrist. This time he was out six months, "the longest six months of my life." He didn't join the Padres for good until June '83, then he hit .309 in 86 games. In 1984, his first full season, he did nothing more than win the batting title with a .351 average on a league-leading 213 hits.
Gwynn grew to become a prominent figure in more ways than one. From a skinny high school kid, he became, he says, "a fat, 5-11 point guard" in college. When he signed with the Padres, his father, Charles, remarked how fitting it was that Tony should join a team owned by the proprietors of a fast-food chain, since he had become, by his own admission, "a junk-food junkie." In the big leagues, his weight registered in the 210 range. "I've heard all the fat jokes," Gwynn says.
Ah, but this year will be different. In addition to his labors in the batting cage all winter, Gwynn ran in the steep hills around his home and even experimented for a time working with weights. Most important, he stopped eating so much. "I just don't seem to get hungry anymore," he says proudly. He reported to the Padres' spring training camp in Yuma, Ariz. at a big league low of 193 pounds. "I had to ask if the scales were right," he says.
Sitting in the sunken living room of his home this past winter, looking for all the world like a man content with his lot, Gwynn held his 8-month-old daughter, Anisha, in his arms. His three-year-old son, Anthony II, was swinging a bat nearby. In a few days he would leave them to begin another season. "I want to be a complete player," he said. "I want to be consistent offensively and defensively. I don't think I'll ever be satisfied. You see, once you think you're where you want to be, you're not there anymore. I really don't think I've hit my peak yet." He got to his feet and stretched. "But I think I'll get there one day."
Gwynn smiled down at his son and said, "I know one thing—it's going to be fun just trying to get there." And when he does get there, we may rest assured that he will be the last to know it.