WAY ABOVE AVERAGE

Last week Will Clark and Tony Gwynn squared off in a battle for a batting—and a division—crown
September 24, 1989

For a moment last Friday night, Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres seemed to have come up with the perfect solution to that nagging problem that depresses so many batting averages: being called out. With two down in the top of the fifth, Gwynn's sinking line drive at Candlestick Park had just been flagged down by San Francisco Giants centerfielder Brett Butler, who had to dive to reach the ball. But Gwynn stood on first base and refused to move. San Francisco first baseman Will Clark, who at that moment was just a percentage point ahead of Gwynn as the National League leader in hitting, with a .340 average, stood next to Gwynn until all his San Francisco teammates had trotted off the field, and then Clark, too, retreated to the Giants' dugout. Gwynn removed his batting helmet, made the safe sign and remained at first.

This situation might have persisted until the cows came home had the umpires not decided to confer among themselves. They eventually ruled that Butler had trapped the ball and conceded Gwynn his point—and his single. He now led Clark .341 to .340, a lead Gwynn would not relinquish for the remainder of the weekend.

Gwynn's hitting had been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season for San Diego until the Padres went on a tear beginning in late August, winning 19 of their next 24 games. In their weekend showdown at Candlestick against the National League West-leading Giants, San Diego won two of three games to stay alive in the race, five games back. However, the subplot of the weekend featured the competition between Gwynn and Clark.

It has always been considered bad form to be too obvious about counting your hits in the middle of a pennant race, and Clark steadfastly refused to admit that he was comparing averages with Gwynn. Maybe not, but even some Giants found that a little difficult to believe. "Winning the batting title would mean a lot to anybody, but it means even more to a guy like Will, who has power, because he doesn't bunt much or get many infield hits," said San Francisco batting coach Dusty Baker. "I'm sure he's got his eye on Gwynn."

Even Gwynn seemed to feel the batting championship might mean more to Clark, which seemed odd because outfielder Gwynn has a chance this season to become the first National League player to win three straight hitting titles since Stan Musial did it in 1950, '51 and '52. "This year is going to be the toughest year for me to win because Will knows how to handle pressure," says Gwynn. "There were four guys in it with me at the end of last season, but I didn't worry about them because they had never known what it was like to get up every morning and have to choke down some other guy's three-for-four with your corn flakes. Will's a great hitter who's never won the batting title, but I think he really wants it."

After leading the league in RBIs, with 109, but batting only .282 last season, Clark was determined to raise his average this year by hitting to all fields. "It's changed me a ton," he says. "It's made me a more complete hitter. You can hit the ball out of the ballpark the other way as easily as you can by pulling the ball. You just have to be a little finer in your execution."

Gwynn says he started peeking at the batting-race standings only last week, and did so reluctantly, still mindful of 1986, when he slumped in September and lost the crown. "That was the year I choked," he says. "I got so paranoid worrying about what everybody else was doing, reading the paper and seeing that [Tim] Raines and [Steve] Sax had gotten three more hits the night before, feeling them gaming on me. I finished third that year. I learned my lesson. I can't control Will Clark."

Sometimes not even Clark can do that. Opposing teams often find his distinctive swagger difficult to stomach, and on more than a few occasions he has been accused of hotdogging. When Giants third baseman Matt Williams hit a home run against the Mets' Frank Viola recently, Clark stood on second base, blowing a bubble with his chewing gum as he watched the ball go out and then slowly trotted home.

Yet so fierce is Clark's intensity that he takes even the most innocuous question as if he has just been accused of something. He responds with a voice that is a little too loud, as though he's trying to keep inquisitors at arm's length. "People are suddenly starting to talk about a batting race," Clark will say, his brown eyes burning like embers, "but where were you two months ago? It's been a race all season long." Unhappy now with both the question and his answer, he reverses fields rhetorically. "But it's not a batting race," he says, snapping this postulate off emphatically, "it's a pennant race."

"Will is a competitor," says San Francisco manager Roger Craig. "When he makes an out with a man in scoring position, he gets embarrassed." He isn't embarrassed often. When Clark scored his league-leading 100th run last Thursday, he became the first Giant since Willie Mays to have back-to-back 100-run, 100-RBI seasons. At week's end Clark ranked second in the league in hits (188), total bases (309), RBIs (109) and on-base percentage (.408). The longest he had gone without a hit this season was 11 at bats. Eleven. "He's one of those hitters that comes along once every two or three decades," says Craig.

Clark may one day be the hitter against whom all others are measured, but for this decade, in the National League, the touchstone has been Gwynn. "People tend to judge whether I've had a good year by whether I win a batting title," says Gwynn, now battling for his fourth crown. "But every year that I've won it—except '84—we've been out of the division race, and it's easier to do little things that help you win a batting title when your team's out of it."

On their second turns at bat on Friday, Gwynn and Clark established their priorities. Gwynn grounded a ball to the right side of the infield to score Bip Roberts from third, and Clark hit a sacrifice fly deep to centerfield to bring second baseman Robby Thompson scampering home. Gwynn, however, also stroked three singles in five at bats, while Clark went 0 for 3 in the Padres' 5-3 victory.

Before Saturday's game was called because of rain, San Diego pitchers Calvin Schiraldi and Bruce Hurst were watching the Boston-Oakland game on TV in the Padre clubhouse. Both have played for the Red Sox, and their former teammate Wade Boggs was in a face-to-face showdown with the Athletics' Carney Lansford in the American League batting race. Lansford finished the week at .337, just behind Minnesota's Kirby Puckett, who was on top at .338. Boggs, who was suffering from a muscle bruise on his right elbow—the result of being hit by a pitch on Friday night—would end up at .327.

"If he was leading the race right now," said Hurst, gazing up at Boggs on the TV screen and laughing, "he'd be outta there."

"If he was leading it," added Schiraldi, who was now also laughing at Boggs, "he'd be way outta there."

It is unlikely that anyone would ever confuse such paragons of teamwork as Gwynn and Clark with Boggs. On the other hand, it would be difficult to bet against Boggs, who is seeking his fifth consecutive batting title and the sixth of his career. Though he trailed Puckett and Lansford, it was the competition that sounded demoralized. "I figure if I hit .356 last season and couldn't win the title, I'll never win one," said Puckett last month. Boggs, who batted .357 or better each of the last four seasons, tended to agree. "Let's face it," he says, "if I were having a typical year, it wouldn't even be close."

Boggs went into the season still trying to explain his relationship with the nymphamous Margo Adams. He then found out that the Red Sox were ready to trade him if they could find the right offer—which they couldn't—and got off to a slow start. "I'm sure there were people looking at me in May and saying, 'Look, Wade Boggs is going to hit .270 this year,' " he says, apparently still without a real strong grasp of what people were looking at him and saying last May. Boggs says he learned a lesson: "You've got to hit good the whole season—at the beginning, in the middle and at the end—if you're going to win a batting title." Also, never date litigious ladies who are not your wife. Especially talky ones.

If either Lansford or Puckett wins the batting title, it would be the first time a righthanded batter has won the American League crown in a full season since 1970. (Lansford won it in the strike-shortened '81 season, hitting .336 for Boston.) The Angels' Alex Johnson edged the Red Sox's Carl Yastrzemski on the last day of the '70 season by getting hits in two of his first three at bats and then, with the title assured, allowing Angel manager Lefty Phillips to sit him down. Yastrzemski never complained publicly about losing that way, but one Boston newspaper, showing great restraint, labeled Johnson's removal from the game "the most disgraceful act in the history of the American League."

Actually, American League batting races have seen other disgraceful, or at least distasteful, acts. In 1976, for example, George Brett and Hal McRae of the Royals entered the last game of the season in a virtual dead heat, but by the time Brett came to bat in the ninth inning, he needed a base hit to pass McRae. Brett lofted a routine fly, which Twins leftfielder Steve Brye allowed to fall in front of him. The ball bounced over Brye's head for an inside-the-park home run. McRae grounded to short and finished with an average of .3320 to Brett's .3333.

After McRae pulled up at first base, he gestured and shouted toward the Minnesota dugout and had to be restrained when Twins manager Gene Mauch came onto the field. McRae later implied that racial prejudice had decided the outcome of the competition. "I know they let the ball [Brett hit] drop," he said. Brye contended he had simply played too deep, and after a brief investigation, the league office allowed the matter to, well, drop.

Knowing that the tiniest of percentage points often decides these races, Clark and Gwynn both spent last week poring over the notes and video files they keep on opposing pitchers, looking for any small advantage. "I hate to waste an at bat," says Gwynn. "You want to go up there every time with a good idea of what you're going to do, so before each series I like to put in a tape and see some footage of each pitcher I'm going to face."

Gwynn travels with his own video equipment, and Clark studies the copious notes he makes after every game and looks for pitching tendencies on the video clips he has of most of his 1989 at bats.

All the technical wizardry appeared to count for little in the first game of Sunday's doubleheader between the Giants and the Padres. San Francisco won 5-3, as both Gwynn and Clark took uncharacteristic 0-for-4 collars. However, in the second game, a 6-1 Padres win, Clark went 2 for 3 to raise his number to .338, and Gwynn countered with a 2-for-5 effort to put his average at .339. Which is way above average, no matter how you look at it.

PHOTOBILL SMITHClark (left), whose swing is sweeter than his disposition, is aiming for his first hitting title, but at week's end Gwynn had a leg up. PHOTOTIM DEFRISCO/ALLSPORT USA[See caption above.] PHOTOROBERT BECK/ALLSPORT USALansford, who has been in the hunt before, is striking a blow for righthanded hitters. PHOTORICK STEWART/ALLSPORT USABoggs got off to a slow start, but his competitors still consider him the batter to beat. PHOTOSTEPHEN DUNN/ALLSPORT USAPuckett just missed at .356 in '88, but may see luck smile on him in '89.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)