Tony Gwynn doesn't brag on much, except maybe his mother's
cooking. Even at that, he doesn't pull for the fences. That is,
it's not a matter of Vendella Gwynn's being the best cook in the
world, only that she bakes the best pecan pie in the state of
California. See, even bragging-wise, he only aims to make
So, with his San Diego Padres on a trip to Los Angeles, Gwynn
prepared to deliver. He phoned his mom in nearby Long Beach,
said he had bragged on her pies and asked her to bake a pair for
the postgame spread. Vendella was furious at her son's
presumption. "I could bake them," she said to him, seething,
"but what if they're no good? You're just going to embarrass me."
Furious or not, she baked a pair of pecan pies, and they were
added to the post-game smorgasbord. Now, anybody who has ever
seen baseball players attack a spread is reminded anew how
recently we've been promoted from the animal kingdom. The pies
were consumed just like that, without anyone pronouncing any
more judgment than one of those artery-clearing thumps to the
As with any postgame meal, it was probably enough that no one
got hurt, and all Gwynn could do afterward was examine the empty
pie tins and report to his mother that when all was said and
done, nobody got embarrassed that he could tell.
September 17, 1995
A typical Gwynn family production, when you think about it: the
pie story as defining metaphor. Like his mom, Gwynn is motivated
by fear of failure, produces small events in a reliable fashion
and is, despite 14 seasons of 1-for-3 work at the plate, as
humble and as taken for granted as a pecan pie in a postgame
Tony Gwynn is talking, talking, talking. He is a .400 talker,
the only one in baseball. His wife, Alicia, the school chum he
only later recognized as something more than a batting-practice
pitcher, says the man doesn't make two peeps when he's at
home. "Oh, he might come out of the game room all of a sudden
and say, 'What's for dinner?'" she reports. But sitting in front
of his cubicle, six hours before a game, rolling a bat in his
hands, he won't shut up, not when it comes to baseball. You can
locate him from around corners, since all his stories end on a
"Mike Schmidt once said, 'You can always teach a guy to hit
.300,'" Gwynn begins. "But you can't teach him how to hit it out
of a ballpark." He rolls the bat. "People want to see home runs.
At first I was annoyed by that. But now I see, basically, he's
right. Took me a long time to grasp it. I mean, I hit .370 in
1987, and I finished eighth in the MVP voting. I couldn't
understand that then. Last year I hit .394, and I finished
seventh. I'm getting the picture. But it annoyed me for a long
If no longer annoyed, he remains defensive. The motives of a
contact hitter, even one of the best ever to play the game, are
always suspect. "One thing I've found is that we're called
selfish more than anybody else," he says. "It's happened to me.
It's happened to every contact hitter who's played the game.
It's just a by-product of what we do. Anytime you're trying to
do something perfect, so focused on what you do--well, it's not
Another story, nonbakery division: In 1991 Gwynn was cruising
toward his fifth batting title, the one that would have
separated him from Bill Madlock and Roberto Clemente. Batting
titles were not then, or ever, a matter of casual interest to
Gwynn was batting .337, even on an increasingly bad left wheel,
playing for a typically mediocre San Diego team. His title, if
properly protected, was in the bag. And because knee surgery was
inevitable, his father, Charles, suggested--insisted--that Gwynn
retire for the season. "You're not helping yourself, you're not
helping your team," Charles barked at him. "Sit down and win
Gwynn played on until, with 21 games remaining and his average
down to .317, he finally surrendered to arthroscopic surgery.
His father was beside himself. The Atlanta Braves' Terry
Pendleton was going to win a batting title that could have been
retired weeks ago. "I told you! I told you!" Charles kept
shouting at his son. Tony tried to explain, "Dad, you can't win
a batting title that way. You just can't."
It would have been ... embarrassing. Gwynn finally won that
fifth batting title last season, hitting .394 in a
strike-shortened year that could well have produced the first
.400 season since Ted Williams's in 1941. It was special. But
his dad had died in 1993. "That fifth title bugged him forever,"
At week's end Gwynn was batting .363--leading the league, of
course. But he hadn't really kicked into gear until Aug. 27,
when Los Angeles Dodger catcher Mike Piazza, who'd been injured
earlier in the season, finally had enough at bats to qualify for
the league lead. At the time Gwynn was hitting .357 to Piazza's
.367. After Sunday's game and a 13-game streak during which he
hit .400, however, Gwynn had overtaken Piazza, who was at .360.
Gwynn's brother Chris, a Dodger outfielder, had telephoned Tony
to tell him how much Piazza was talking about winning the
batting crown. "Oh, man, he wants it bad," Chris had said.
"I know what it's like for anyone who's in a batting race for
the first time," Tony says, "but I'm in a position where I don't
worry about it anymore. I mean, if I don't win this year, do I
feel like I can come back and win it next year? Yeah, sure."
Earlier this season Gwynn surpassed Wade Boggs of the New York
Yankees to become the active major leaguer with the highest
career batting average (through Sunday he was at .335). At age
35 he is turning on the inside pitch more than ever, and his run
production is up: He is on pace to drive in 109 runs (his
previous high was 72, in 1990). Padre batting coach Merv
Rettenmund says the book has changed on Gwynn the last three
years. "He's not just a contact hitter," Retten mund says. "He
drives the ball."
Still, Gwynn is sitting in front of his cubicle in Atlanta,
rolling his bat in his hands and lamenting the poor, pitiful
season he has been having, how he muddled around near .300
before he finally found his stroke. Even though he has clearly
found it now, tonight, as always, Gwynn will take back to his
hotel a tape he has made of the game on a small VCR he carries
on the road and hooks up to clubhouse monitors. Then, with a
second VCR he totes, he will transfer his at bats to another
tape. He will actually edit those at bats onto three separate
tapes--one for good at bats, where he might have worked the
count, fouled off tough pitches, just generally not gotten
embarrassed; one of at bats with hits; and one of the swings
that actually produced the hits. "If there are bad at bats on
the tapes, I just click them out," he says. "Watch 'em once,
click 'em out. You don't want to watch yourself looking like an
idiot, waving at some curveball."
This system--refined from his out-of-control, preexpansion days
when he carried 11 tapes on the road with his at bats against
the 11 other National League teams--was born in 1983, only a year
later than his son Anthony, who now travels with the team during
the summer. Tony and Alicia had purchased the camera gear to
document Anthony's growth, but with Gwynn on the road and in a
slump so profound that manager Dick Williams actually benched
him, they found a more professional use for it. "I called home,
told my wife to tape my at bats," says Gwynn. "Just hit the
record button whenever I came to the plate. When I got home and
looked at it, I saw right away what I was doing. I couldn't wait
to get to the ballpark and correct it. Took me 15 swings. Hit
.333 the rest of the year."
Since then he has gone to the tape more often than Marv Albert,
and a legend has grown around Gwynn and his remote control. "It
drives people crazy," he says. "It's tedious, splitting cables
and everything, and I know it gets on people's nerves. But it
works. In this game if you're successful, that means getting
hits three out of 10 times. I'm trying to tap into the other
70 percent, and I don't mind doing it. It's not hard spending
20 minutes a day--pause, record, fast forward." He's squeaking
again. If there's more to the story, only dogs tuned into higher
auditory registers can hear it.
A lot of people have tried to push Gwynn's buttons--his dad, the
Padres--but they don't get it. His dad wanted him to bail out of
San Diego three years ago, when ownership conducted its
season-long fire sale of high-priced talent. "This team isn't
going anywhere," Charles told Tony. "Get out of Dodge!"
But Gwynn wouldn't. Sure, it would have been nice to go with a
winner--he still remembers, from his only postseason action, the
first game of the 1984 World Series when the home crowd gave the
Padres a standing ovation for doing wind sprints--but how do you
guarantee that? It always came back to the same things, the
inviting gaps in Jack Murphy Stadium, the soft grass, the
perfect weather, the low profile he enjoys in San Diego. "The
thing is," he says, "I'm happy here. One of the reasons I've
been successful is that I'm not bigger than big. There's not
that much pressure, not that much hype here. We've got one
newspaper that travels with the team. You've got to have time
and room to work at your craft. They aren't that demanding in
So, early in 1994, only months after his father died of heart
problems, Gwynn did what he has always done. After he was
assured by new ownership that the Padres did indeed intend to
compete, he told them he preferred to remain in San Diego.
Prompted by the Padres' suggestion of a contract extension,
Gwynn told his longtime agent, John Boggs, to negotiate one.
Boggs, whose client was still under contract for one more year
at $4 million and who was without any leverage whatsoever, went
in for a deal. "He's a little difficult to represent," Boggs
"I would take less to stay here," Gwynn says, "and the Padres
knew it. They could take advantage of it--they should take
advantage of it--and they did." Still, the Padres came through
with $4 million a year through 1997, with an option year and a
bonus clause here and there. "They could have had me for $3
million," Gwynn admits. "For what I do?"--he shrugs--"I'm happy."
See, the Padres don't understand him either. Here's one more
Gwynn story from the nonbakery division: In 1986, in a game at
Montreal, Gwynn alone among the Padres was going hitless.
Frustrating, of course. But then the Expos, out of pitchers,
brought in Vance Law from second base to throw to Gwynn, whose
frustration went straight to humiliation when he grounded back
to second. "It's still on my mind," he says. People think rich
contracts drive him? Batting titles? "Vance Law," he says. "You
probably don't know him. But I carry that at bat around every
The strike-shortened season of '94 was tragic for the numbers
left hanging in the ether of uncompleted history: Matt
Williams's 43 home runs, Gwynn's .394. Had the season played
out, who knows what records might have been broken? You can't
project those kinds of things: A sweet stroke can depart just
like that. But it is fair to say that as the season was nearing
its climax, Tony Gwynn was a tough out. And he was looking
forward to a run at .400 and the kind of once-in-a-lifetime
stretch when the media descend for a final look-see at one of
those seminal events they are obliged to cover en masse.
"There was no pressure to that point," Gwynn says of the
season's premature ending on Aug. 12. "The pressure would have
come in September. I had talked to Rod Carew and George Brett,
asked what it was like to make a run at .400. Both said it was
unbelievable, so tough to go about your business. Now, I'm not a
Pete Rose, a guy who thrives on that kind of attention. But I
kind of wanted to go through it, to get a taste of it. You don't
really know what you're made of until you do. I don't think I'd
have been destroyed by it, but you can't really say, can you?"
Well, yes, you can. Gwynn would hardly have been destroyed by
it. Even though he remains amazed by big league attention--after
a road trip, he will marvel at the "deluge" of publicity that he
attracts--he deflects it more naturally than he knows. One
imagines him, postgame, entertaining the press at his cubicle,
rolling his bat in his hands. "I go 4 for 5," he might say,
"average goes up one point! One point!" You can hear the squeak.
Still, it didn't happen, did it? The best that came of the whole
affair was a summons from Ted Williams himself, an invite to his
museum in Florida during the winter to talk baseball. Williams,
among other things, is Gwynn's favorite author. Gwynn first got
a copy of Williams's 1970 bible, The Science of Hitting, while
he was attending San Diego State. He paid four dollars for the
paperback version, and he has marked it up like a guy
researching a Ph.D. Passages are highlighted, margins are filled
with notes. The cover page, which shows a strike zone filled
with baseballs, each of them with an average attached
(Williams's estimate of a batter's stats if he hit pitches only
in that area), has been committed to memory. Gwynn rereads it
two or three times a year. "What I should do," he says, "is
bring it with me on road trips."
Rereading the book before his .394 season is what started him
thinking about turning on the inside pitch a bit more instead of
waiting to slap the outside pitch, his bread and butter.
"Worked," he says. "Had a chance to drive in 90 runs."
The meeting with Williams was a lifetime highlight, although as
usual, Gwynn was put on the defensive. "We talked for half an
hour," Gwynn says, "and I never got a word in edgewise. Anyway,
he's telling me how I 'block the ball off'"--that is, throwing
the bat in front of the ball, which often shoots it to
leftfield, instead of taking a hefty cut. "He says, 'I don't
know what you call it, I call it blocking it off. And I'm one
who believes that history is made from the ball inside.' I start
laughing, but then I think he's right," Gwynn says. "The guys
you think about--Henry Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt--hit
the inside pitch. And he says to me, 'Big as you are'"--Gwynn is
5'11", 215 pounds--"'you should be hitting the ball out.' I said,
'Wait a minute, you're getting into territory that's been a big
problem for me. No question, for most people, you're right. But
if you don't do it well, why focus on it?' We went around and
around on that. Got into it a little bit."
This insistence on home runs will always remain troublesome. Not
that Gwynn, who has hit a mere 86 home runs in his career,
doesn't acknowledge the charisma of the home run hitter. But
that persona just isn't him. "Those guys strike out 100 times a
year," he says. "Can you imagine that? I couldn't live with
that. They've got to let it go to do what they do, swing big,
can't be afraid to fail. That's not me. I've struck out 14 times
this year, and I didn't enjoy that. You know what I was thinking
in the All-Star Game, up against [Seattle Mariner fastballer]
Randy Johnson? Don't strike out. Get the barrel on the ball. I
flied out, wasn't very productive, but a moral victory for me.
Type of guy I am, I guess. I don't like to be embarrassed."
A hotel room, past midnight, blackout drapes drawn. The game is
over, long over, the spread attacked, and the blue fluorescence
of a television washes the dim walls. An announcer on the TV
notices that Gwynn is well up in the batter's box, to take away
the curve, obviously. "Interesting observation," says Gwynn.
"I've only been standing there my whole life." The batter
suddenly lines a shot up the middle that caroms off the pitcher,
who recovers and throws the batter out. "Hits him in the shin
and stays right in front of him!" shouts Gwynn. He calms. "Well,
that was all you could do. I'm not embarrassed by that. Look,
I'm rounding first base like I got a base hit."
The game is fast-forwarded, and, before you know it, Gwynn is at
bat again, with a runner on third. The Atlanta pitcher has a 3-0
count on Gwynn. The papers the next day say Pedro Borbon fully
intended to walk Gwynn. But it's hard to get anything hittable
past a hitter who doesn't really acknowledge a strike zone.
"It's a slider away," Gwynn says. "Not that bad a pitch for him,
not that far outside. My whole assignment here is to go to left,
don't even want to try and pull this guy." On TV, Gwynn swings
inside out--contact!--and the ball is lined over short; the runner
scores. The camera cuts to Brave manager Bobby Cox. Is he
steamed! "That's exactly what I wanted to do," Gwynn says. "That
was a good at bat for me."
Tony Gwynn hunches over, the remote in his hand, bathed in this
unnatural moonlight. He fast-forwards the tape. Pauses, dubs,
fast-forwards. He hopes to find another good at bat, where the
guy's not lunging at the ball, not waving at some stupid curve,
not looking like an idiot. All the guy on the TV has to do is
get the barrel on the ball, make contact. And maybe nobody will
remember how foolish he looks the other, well, two thirds of the
"If there are bad at bats on the tapes, I just click them out."
Gwynn was hitting .394 and looking forward to a run at .400.