Late last Friday afternoon at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, the National League's reigning Most Valuable Player, Terry Pendleton of the Atlanta Braves, stepped out of the visitors' dugout to take batting practice. Pendleton did what he always does before taking BP: He squeezed the handle of his bat to see how it felt, he pine-tarred the handle, and he squeezed it again. He was ready. Almost.
He strode purposefully to the third base side of the batting cage, where he waited for the Padres' sweet-swinging Tony Gwynn to finish his round of cuts. And then as Gwynn emerged from the cage, Pendleton rubbed his arm on Gwynn's uniform shirt as though it were a rabbit's foot.
"What are you doing?" Gwynn demanded.
"The way you guys are swinging," Pendleton said, "I want it to rub off on me."
It has been that kind of gee-whiz season for the top four guys in the San Diego batting order, all of whom entered last weekend hitting at least .320. They exited the weekend with slightly lighter averages after facing the Braves' Steve Avery, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz and losing three in a row. But it has been 42 years since any four hitters in a lineup each batted .320 or more for a season; shortstop Tony Fernandez (who was at .318 after Sunday's game), rightfielder Gwynn (.349), third baseman Gary Sheffield (.315) and first baseman Fred McGriff (.317) are contending to do just that—albeit with two thirds of the season left.
In San Diego they're calling them the Four Tops, and the P.A. system at Jack Murphy blares out one of three Four Tops hits—Same Old Song, Reach Out I'll Be There or I Can't Help Myself—after each Four Tops hit. "Can't they find any new ones?" McGriff good-naturedly groused on Saturday night. "I'm so sick of those songs."
With 144 hits in their first 30 home games, the Tops have made themselves the most fearsome first foursome in the league. "What I see," says Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, "is as good a top of the lineup as I've ever seen in the game."
It starts with Fernandez, who after off-season thumb surgery is playing pain-free for the first time in two years. He's followed by Gwynn, who struck out all of four times in his first 212 at bats. After Sheffield's arrival via a March 27 trade with the Milwaukee Brewers, his bat so impressed Padres manager Greg Riddoch that he decided to bat Sheffield third. His decision was a gamble, because the 23-year-old Sheffield was coming off a whiny, injury-plagued .194 season, but Riddoch has gotten a nice payoff: As of Sunday, Sheffield was fourth in the National League in total bases (110).
Next up is Crime Dog, which is what autograph-chasing kids call McGriff, thanks to ESPN's Chris Berman (the nickname comes from cartoon character Crime Dog McGruff). McGriff is having what is, for him, a very normal year: second in total bases (115) and second in home runs (12).
Can the Four Tops keep the beat? Well, Gwynn is Gwynn, and McGriff will hit his 30 homers and drive in his 100—write it down. Fernandez has hit .300 before, but not in five years. And Sheffield is the X factor. "No one can predict how he'll finish," says San Diego batting coach Merv Rettenmund, "but all I know is he hits everything hard, and the ball makes an unusual sound coming off his bat. It really whistles."
In his office last week, San Diego G.M. Joe McIlvaine pulled a thick notebook from his desk. It's a well-worn trading log he began keeping when he took the San Diego job; he makes an entry each time he talks to another club about a deal. "I'll tell you how many times we talked to the Brewers about Sheffield," he said, opening to the Milwaukee section. "The first contact was in January 1991. That's one. Since then, two, three, four, five...." He flipped the page and kept counting, and flipped the page again, and then, "...24, 25, 26. On the 26th contact, we made the deal."
The Padres dealt three top prospects for Sheffield and a prospect. When Sheffield arrived, he told McIlvaine, "I feel like I've been let out of prison." He has made it clear that he didn't like anything about the city of Milwaukee or his Brewer teammates, and that by last season wrist and shoulder injuries had made his life even more miserable. But the player who walked into the Padres' clubhouse last Friday was not the dour, grim player he was in Milwaukee. He was quiet but open. And smiling.
"I thought I'd always be known as one of those guys people talked about, like, 'He could have been something, if only he'd done things the right way,' " Sheffield says. "I was basically all alone in Milwaukee—20, 21, 22 years old, and I had no one to talk to. There were a lot of selfish players there, caught up in themselves. They couldn't help the younger guy. I didn't want to beg for it, so I just stayed away from them. Finally it got to the point where I didn't want to play anymore. I didn't want to work at it. The fun was totally out of the game. All I wanted to do was go through the motions. I started thinking, All I want to do is be an average player. I didn't want to be a great player anymore. It was killing me."
McIlvaine had seen this before. "Lenny Dykstra simply couldn't stay in New York anymore," he says. "Platooning him [with Mookie Wilson] mentally whipped the guy. He couldn't cope. Same with Gary. Gary's getting traded was almost like an act of mercy."
And now Sheffield and his fellow Tops are showing no mercy to National League pitchers. In one memorable performance, on May 25 at home against the Pirates, Gwynn ripped a three-run homer off Zane Smith in the fifth inning. Then Sheffield stepped in. "I'm still high-fiving people in the dugout," says Gwynn, "and all of a sudden I hear this booing. There's Gary, in the dirt, just knocked down. And then I'm putting my helmet in the helmet rack, and I hear this sound." It was the whistling sound of a baseball traveling into the second deck of leftfield at Jack Murphy Stadium, the first time a ball had landed there in three years.
"It's a competitive sport," Sheffield says, shrugging. "He's got the nerve to knock me down. I've got the nerve to take him out of the park."
Gwynn liked the Sheffield at bat so much he copied it onto a videotape of his own at bats. So in Gwynn's personal 1992 video library, he has 200-and-some Gwynn plate appearances and one Sheffield. And one McGriff. "While they were replaying Gary's home run," says Gwynn, "Fred comes up and whack! He gets a hit. So that one's on there too." The Four Tops' greatest hits, sort of.
Four days later, in St. Louis, the Padres were behind 1-0 with two outs in the top of the ninth. Cardinals lefty Donovan Osborne had mulched 24 straight batters. But then Gwynn worked him for a double. On came stopper Lee Smith. In the on-deck circle, McGriff told Sheffield, "Get ready for the fastball. That's what he likes to throw in this situation."
Sheffield nodded. McGriff went back to the dugout and told Rettenmund he'd just told Sheffield to look for a fastball. "Damn!" Rettenmund told him. ""I wish you'd told him to look slider."
Too late now. Sheffield looked fastball. He got slider. He poked it into right, scoring Gwynn. McGriff then doubled, scoring Sheffield. Ball game.
Rettenmund, after the game, asked Sheffield about the at bat. "I always look fastball, then adjust," Sheffield told him. "That's what I did." Rettenmund looked at him admiringly. "That was Lee Smith you just adjusted against," he said.
Last year Fernandez tried to adjust to playing with a torn thumb ligament, making for the toughest season of his career. He could have opted for surgery and called the season a mulligan. But Fernandez, a devout Pentecostal Christian, believes that God put him in San Diego before last season with a purpose. "I'm going to fight with God?" Fernandez says. "No. He has a plan for me. That's why I'm here."
Gwynn is on his way to a 10th straight .300 season, something no National Leaguer since Stan Musial has done. But six times in a 90-minute conversation last week he brought up how tired he was of having great years on bad teams. "I've led the league in hits, I've won batting titles, I've done it all, individually," he said. "This is the best team I've been on, and I'm past hit goals. I want to win." The Padres are winning, but barely: Through Sunday they were 29-27, good for third place in the National League West.
McGriff has hit 30-plus homers in four straight seasons, the only big leaguer on such a streak. But he still figured a way to improve this year: He would hit lefties better. So he went home to Florida in the off-season and batted a lot against lefties at the University of Tampa. His career average against lefthanders was .252 entering this season; he was hitting .375 against them through Sunday. Before this year he was 1 for 21 lifetime against lefthander John Candelaria, now of the Los Angeles Dodgers. On April 10, McGriff came up against L.A. with the bases loaded. Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda fetched Candelaria. The Crime Dog took a bite out of the Candy Man. The ball landed 13 rows up into the rightfield seats. "My best at bat ever," McGriff said.
And another greatest hit for the videotape.