Beginning Again

After a nightmarish 1990, the Padres' Tony Gwynn seeks a season of redemption
March 11, 1991

The gentlemen's quality program at Morse High in San Diego had never honored an athlete as its guest speaker in the program's 13-year existence. So room 204 was buzzing on the morning of Jan. 30, when Padres All-Star rightfielder Tony Gwynn, probably the most popular and successful player in San Diego sports history, walked in.

In his usual gregarious, disarming way, Gwynn spoke for half an hour to this group of 30 admiring young men. His message was: "Do what you want with your life; it's all up to you." As Gwynn counseled, he smiled and laughed with his audience, until he began fielding questions. Suddenly the discussion turned to Gwynn's career and where his own life was heading. The tone of Gwynn's voice changed. He became edgy, defensive.

"I have a lot of time left," he said. "I'm going to do things a lot of people never thought I could do. That's the type of person I am. People put labels on you: 'He's only a singles hitter, he doesn't drive in runs, he doesn't hit homers.' Hey, they can say those things, but sooner or later I'm going to do it. When I do, you'll strip those labels off me and put on more. But I'm doing what I want to do. I'm playing the style of play I play best. Even though a lot of people might not like that, I'm sorry, that's just the way it is."

Imagine that. A four-time National League batting champion, a lifetime .329 hitter, a six-time All-Star, a five-time Gold Glove winner, a Hall of Famer in the making, and he feels the need to justify himself and his career to a bunch of adoring teenagers.

The 1990 season did that to Tony Gwynn. The events of last year have made him guarded, gun-shy, distrustful—a sad transformation for one of baseball's most good-natured people. Gwynn was accused by some of his teammates and, to a lesser degree, by the media, of being selfish, overweight, a whiner and one who indulges the press. In a team meeting in late May, Gwynn was trashed by some of his fellow players. Tension increased all summer, and in early September a plastic Tony Gwynn figurine was found mutilated and hanging in the Padres' dugout. Gwynn's season ended on Sept. 16 in Atlanta when he crashed into the outfield wall and fractured a finger. He refused to come to the ballpark for the rest of the season. His .309 average tied him for sixth in the league, but that was his lowest average in his seven full major league seasons. Wherever he turned, Gwynn heard rumblings that he'd "lost something."

"It was a long year for the team," says San Diego pitcher Calvin Schiraldi, "and an unbelievably long year for Tony."

And unbelievably unexpected. Gwynn, known as one of the game's most dedicated players, seemed such an unlikely candidate for abuse. His accessibility and candor had made him a media favorite. A leader in the community, he had always given generously of his time to helping kids. He was a hero in San Diego, and his life there had been a love affair.

That changed. The blasts from teammates stung Gwynn. "I saw him go into a shell," says Fred Lynn, a Padres outfielder last year. Gwynn avoided the press from mid-September through December. "I always had to answer someone's criticism, and I was tired of it," he says. "Ask the guy who made the criticism, not me."

Gwynn says he still loves San Diego and its fans and is excited about helping the Padres win in '91. But he knows the new season docs not bring an entirely clean slate. "All that stuff from last year is still hanging over my head," Gwynn says. "Somebody will always be judging everything I do, based on what these guys said. Even the people who've seen me play every day for the last eight years will judge me on what was said. It won't be any easier. I think it's going to be tougher. It's like I'm branded."

The Padres are certainly trying to make things easier for Gwynn. On Feb. 21 new general manager Joe McIlvaine signed him to a three-year, $12.25 million contract extension, which included a $1 million signing bonus. Says Gwynn. "I'm very appreciative of that, but I also think I'm deserving. It makes me feel good."

Gwynn has to be equally happy with the fact that over the winter the Padres—who were last year's preseason favorites to win the National League West but then finished fifth, with a 75-87 record—did a major housecleaning and in the process swept out Gwynn's chief tormentors. Jack Clark, Gwynn's harshest critic, was granted new-look free agency in December and was offered only a one-year contract by San Diego; he opted for a three-year deal with the Boston Red Sox. Mike Pagliarulo, another detractor, signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Twins. Shortstop Garry Templeton, also in the anti-Gwynn camp last year, is tradable now that San Diego has shortstop Tony Fernandez, acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays in December.

The 30-year-old Gwynn arrived at the Padres' camp in Yuma, Ariz., last week, three days early and with a smile on his face. He bounced into the clubhouse, admired the Padres" new blue uniforms ("I hated the old brown ones. I hated every one of them"), then spotted manager Greg Riddoch and immediately asked if he could get a coach to throw extra batting practice to him.

The aftereffects of last season could not be hidden entirely, though. During batting practice Gwynn dropped a bunt and said to himself, laughingly, "You selfish bastard."

His mood was decidedly upbeat. "I can't remember being so determined to go out and do some things," he says. "I'm swinging the bat good. I feel good about the direction I'm going."

The only direction Gwynn went last year was down. He admits he deserves some of the blame "because I got myself in a hole by the things I said," especially his questioning of the Padres' salary structure in December 1989 after he had dropped to being the team's seventh-highest-paid player, at $1 million a year.

In the spring the hole became a chasm. On May 15 the New York Daily News quoted Pagliarulo as saying that one Padre was more concerned about getting his hits than about his team's winning. Gwynn didn't pay the story much note until a San Diego writer told him that Pagliarulo was referring to Gwynn. (Pagliarulo denies this, and has told Gwynn so.) Gwynn reacted angrily, saying, "Nobody else is going to stand up for me, so I've got to stand up for myself." Before the Padres' game on May 24 at Shea Stadium, Jack McKeon, San Diego's manager at the time, called a meeting.

"It was like the whole thing was planned," Gwynn says. "Jack [McKeon] said, 'Tempy [Templeton] has got something to say,' then he and the coaches left. Tempy said there were some things in the paper that he didn't like, and he wanted to know where I was coming from. We started yelling back and forth. So Jack [Clark] is sitting there with a Coke in his hands. He slams it across the room, it breaks open and shoots all over the place, and he says, 'Hey, everyone in here knows why we're having this meeting—because we got some selfish——in this room, and they're [pitcher] Eric Show and Tony Gwynn.' Eric was shocked. I was shocked.

"Now, Jack is an intimidating person. When he spoke, there was dead silence. Then Eric said, 'What are you talking about?' Jack laid into him. So I asked Jack, 'What the hell do you want me to do? You tell me.' Five times I asked him, but he never answered me. Then I was criticized for not talking to the new players and telling them where to go, who to see, who to take their kids to, what restaurants to go to. Other guys chirped in, 'Yeah, yeah, you should have done that.' Finally, I said, 'I quit. Go ahead and talk.'

"After that meeting I was lost. I spent many nights asking myself, 'Is it me?' In other people's minds, maybe they were right in thinking some things I did were selfish. But face it, this is a selfish game. You get up to the plate, there's no one to help you but yourself. But I've always tried to be a team player. As for the perception that I was sitting on my average by bunting [one of the charges leveled by Clark], I just don't believe you can sit on your average in May."

However, after the locker room confrontation, Gwynn says, he changed his style: "I'd go to the plate and say, 'Here's a situation where I don't pull the ball off this guy because he's pitching me away, but if I bunt, I'm selfish.' So I'd go up there and try to pull, forget about getting a hit, just try to pull. But that's not what I do. I'm a straightaway hitter. People should know if I say I can't do something, then I can't, and respect that. I don't have to answer to anybody on my club who criticized me for my style."

Just as Gwynn is still defensive 10 months after that meeting, Clark is still critical of Gwynn. "I won't miss being his teammate," says Clark. "He is a good player, not a good teammate."

Why not?

"He has a losing attitude about baseball," Clark says. "He protects Number One: himself. He does his own thing because everyone in San Diego kisses his ass. He's, like, Mr. Padre. But you don't know Tony until you play with him. He wasn't playing winning baseball. If he's as good a hitter as everyone makes him out to be, including himself, he should swing the bat instead of bunting with men in scoring position. But he was blind to that. He sees what helps his stats. No one bothers Tony Gwynn because he wins batting titles, but the Padres finish fourth or fifth every year. You figure it out. What's more important?"

As for his departure from San Diego, Clark says only, "If you step on Tony's toes, you have no chance with the San Diego Padres."

Says Gwynn, "I'm just glad Jack ain't here anymore, because it would have been a messy situation again. Who says so much credence should be put in what he says? Because he's a big, intimidating first baseman? That doesn't mean squat to me. And he sure as hell hasn't won any Gold Gloves. Maybe he should make a change. But he won't. And he's going to Boston and will probably have his best year. He'll be kicking back while we'll be digging out of the hole that man dug here."

This issue of "selfishness" in baseball is a thorny one. Gwynn joins a long list of standout players who have been accused of selfish play, including Wade Boggs, Pete Rose, even Ted Williams, the greatest hitter of all time. If a player's main goal is to get 200 hits and he gets them, chances are he has helped his team, not hurt it. Gwynn didn't help his case by telling a friend in the dugout late last season, "Just 26 more, 26 more hits for 200." But don't think for a minute that Gwynn is the only major leaguer who is keenly aware of his key stats.

If you talk with Gwynn's managers, former and current, about his alleged selfishness, the response is unanimous. Says McKeon, "He's one of the most unselfish players I've ever managed. In '89, when he was going for a batting title, he was giving himself up to move runners along."

Dick Williams, who managed Gwynn from 1982 through '85, writes of Gwynn in his autobiography, No More Mr. Nice Guy: "I don't think I've ever had a player who worked harder, cared more and was more deserving of his awards."

Riddoch, who replaced McKeon last July, says, "I saw Tony go outside the realm of his game last year to accommodate the feelings of others, and it took away from his ability to get 33 hits every 100 at bats. I told him, 'Just play like Tony Gwynn plays. You don't have to live up to anyone's expectations.' "

Steve Boros, the San Diego skipper in 1986, says, "Tony Gwynn could play for Genghis Khan."

If Gwynn's stats consciousness is sometimes apparent, McKeon explains that "people misinterpret Tony. He's very intense. He has a lot of pride. He might go 3 for 5 and be ticked off about making two outs. I've seen him get three hits and go out after a game and hit some more in the cage. He's a perfectionist."

As for the complaint that he is too cozy with the press, Gwynn says, "After that meeting one of my teammates asked me, 'Why, if you go 0 for 4, do writers come talk to you?' My answer was, 'I don't know.' I was perceived as being nice to the writers so they would do stuff for me. I don't know. I can't control who comes to my locker. I talk to guys whether I go 0 for 4 or 4 for 4."

He had more 0-for-4's than 4-for-4's last year. Some observers say his weight was the problem. Gwynn says he reported to camp in 1990 at 215 pounds, same as always. While 215 pounds on a 5'10" frame is probably too much, Gwynn has always been round, even when he was a point guard for four years at San Diego State. Says McKeon, "When he's not hitting .350, they say he looks heavy. I had the weight charts. I saw a difference of maybe two pounds from spring training until I left the field in July. But they said the same thing about me, too. I look a lot better out of uniform than I do in it."

Like many people when it comes to their weight, Gwynn doesn't want to talk about his. "My weight is my business, no one else's," he says. "As long as I do my job, no one says a word. If you think I'm overweight, fine. If you think I'm selfish, fine. All I say is let me do my job. Besides, I'm not apologizing for .309, 80 runs, 72 RBIs."

If few players readily quote such numbers, few would have to defend them, either. For Gwynn, however, those stats were substandard. And his stolen bases fell from 40 in 1989 to 17. But if his weight was a factor, the extra poundage didn't prevent him from leading all National League rightfielders in putouts per nine innings and winning his fifth Gold Glove.

Despite last summer's turmoil, Gwynn was shooting for his fifth 200-hit season. Then, in September, the Gwynn figurine was found hanging gruesomely in the San Diego dugout, the arms and legs cut off. The Padres held an investigation. Supposedly one of the groundskeepers at Jack Murphy Stadium hung the doll as a prank.

"There's nothing wrong with having a good laugh, but when I saw it, I didn't laugh," says Gwynn. A week later his season ended when he broke his finger. He cleared out his locker and went home. Asked by a writer if he would return to the park, Gwynn said, "Hell no, why would I want to hang around with those— —?"

He admits that that remark "blew it out of the water again. I should have been specific. I made a mistake. I'm not perfect, although a lot of people seem to put me in that category. I've made mistakes. My comment was out of character. But I felt I'd been through enough. It was time to think about myself. They had been calling me selfish. It was time to be selfish."

Now it is time to play baseball again. Gwynn thinks he's ready. "I'm a little wiser, smarter, more prepared for this year," he says. "I'm going to have fun. I didn't laugh as much last year. That was my fault too. This year I'm going to have myself a good old time and play the game the way it was meant to played. If that offends people, I'm sorry. I got a job to do. I can only do it the best way I know how. Someone will have something to say about me, I figure, about three weeks into spring training. But this year I'm going to laugh."

On the outside. Maybe.

PHOTOV.J. LOVERO PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHTeammates called Gwynn a selfish hitter, but his fielding continued to be above reproach. PHOTOBILL FRAKESClark has moved on, but he hasn't curbed his criticisms.

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)