July 3, 1997 in Sports

Gwynn Battling Padre Time Seven-Time Batting Champ Plays Hurt

Larry Larue Tacoma News Tribune
 

A night earlier, Tony Gwynn had strained a muscle deep in his back, so only the size of the ice pack he was wearing surprised batting coach Merv Rettenmund.

Gwynn looked hunchbacked under the six pounds of ice strapped to him as he leaned forward to ease the pain.

“You want to try to take a few swings to see if you can play?” Rettenmund asked.

“I can go,” Gwynn said.

“You want to just try a few swings?”

“I can go, Gwynn said.

Rettenmund walked away, caught a writer watching.

“Everything you ever hear about Tony is the swing, the talent, the smile,” Rettenmund said. “What people don’t understand is how tough he is. I’ve seen him play with injuries a lot of guys would take with them to the disabled list.

“Tony Gwynn plays hurt. And he plays hurt better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Later that night, Gwynn took off the ice wrapped around his body and went 3-for-4. Afterward, the media asked yet again about his chances of batting .400 this season. No one asked about his injury.

After the press left, Gwynn walked slowly to the trainer’s room for more ice.

Wally Joyner was asked what has impressed him most about teammate Gwynn.

“The one thing no one ever talks about,” Joyner said. “Tony is tough.”

It is hard to take Gwynn seriously in person, because almost everything he says is accompanied by a smile and a squeak. His voice is naturally high, and when he gets going it nearly disappears entirely.

“Yeah, I’m tough,” he said. “I laugh a lot. I smile. I enjoy my life. Over the years, people have somehow come up with this image - wind me up, I get three hits. Like it’s easy.

“When people talk about my batting average, it’s always ‘natural ability.’ ”

Gwynn snatches up a typed page of notes from the locker near his, sees the list of top 10 batting averages in the National League.

“Larry Walker, me, Mike Piazza …” Gwynn ticks off the top three names, looks up. “Why does anyone assume it’s easier for me than for a big guy? People ask about .400, they don’t understand. It’s hard to hit .340. It’s hard to hit .350.”

Gwynn is squeaking. And smiling. And serious.

“Guys at this level are so talented, so good. You’ve got two, three guys chasing the home run record. In Colorado, Andres (Galarraga) is after the all-time RBI record. All the great hitters in the big leagues, and right now you’ve got - what - five guys hitting .360 or better.

“And it’s June.”

Over the past 4-1/2 years, Gwynn’s average is .370.

“That doesn’t mean it’s easy,” he said.

He says it so quietly he doesn’t squeak.

He is 37 years old and some days feels closer to 50. Name a body part and Gwynn can counter with an injury, though it’s a game he won’t play for long.

“I just played in my 2,000th game,” he said. “I’m playing for a manager, with coaches, who were once teammates. It doesn’t matter how I feel, there are reminders everywhere - I’m old.”

Gwynn has had a phenomenal career in a quiet little baseball village, San Diego. He was signed in 1981 as a player more known locally as a slightly rounded point guard at San Diego State.

“I got a letter the other day from some fan who was looking through old yearbooks and saw a picture of me playing hoops,” Gwynn said. “He said except for the Afro, I looked the same - I was fat then.”

Gwynn cackles, shakes his head.

“People have talked about my weight since I was in college. They talked about it when I won my first batting championship and my seventh,” he said. “I never had a hard body. I’ve gotten a lot out of the one I was given.”

More than anyone in the game, Gwynn is a student of hitting. He has talked - no, argued - with Ted Williams about his approach at home plate, and video-taped virtually every at-bat he’s had over the last decade.

Gwynn travels with two VCRs, one to replay tapes of each game, the other to dub certain at-bats, certain swings, onto a permanent tape. He spent more than $100,000 a few years ago to upgrade the Padres clubhouse video system.

When he watches a swing, it is rarely at full speed. He’ll slow it down to frame-by-frame, study the location of his front foot, his hands, the barrel of the bat.

“You show me a tape of my swing, I can tell you what year it was taken,” he said.

Not because the swing has changed so much. Gwynn can recognize the tape because he can see things he had to do at that given moment to make that swing despite an injury he was suffering.

Toughness.

“He’s won batting titles when you didn’t think he could walk down the runway to the field,” Rettenmund said.

“You’d better be tough to play this game well,” Gwynn said. “I’m tough.”

Translate his career to real life. Think back to some of the worst times you’ve ever been through - and how you handled day-to-day existence. Then look at Gwynn.

In 1987, investments made by his agent and advisers began to collapse and Gwynn, then 27, declared bankruptcy.

He batted .370.

In 1993, Gwynn strained a calf muscle and, trying to favor it, tore cartilage in his knee that required surgery the day after the season ended.

He batted .358.

In 1994, Gwynn lost his father, a man with whom he’d shared every moment of his career.

“The worst day of my life,” Gwynn says, remembering.

Gwynn batted .394.

The ability to hit despite pain - emotional and physical - has been largely overlooked by those who see Gwynn’s career average of .339. It shouldn’t be, because it has been as impressive a list of injuries as any in the game.

Gwynn’s rookie year he fractured a wrist and batted .309. Since then, he has undergone surgeries to his hand, his feet, a frayed Achilles tendon, his knees. He has fractured fingers and toes, sprained a wrist and had lymph nodes surgically removed.

During that run, he has never batted less than .300 for a season.

A 12-time All-Star. Five Gold Gloves. Seven batting titles.

Gwynn is a happily married father of two children, unerringly attentive to his friends and teammates, constantly smiling and chatting with fans.

And yet, he says, his major league career seems marked by the achievement not yet accomplished - hitting .400 for a full season.

“In my lifetime, two men made a run at .400 - George Brett and Rod Carew - and I’ve talked to both of them about it,” Gwynn said. “I’ve played this game for 15 years and never done it.

“Just looking at what it takes is spooky. I don’t walk a lot, so I get more at-bats. You go 2-for-5 for 10 days, then 0-for-5, and you need a four-hit game just to get back to .400. Translate that over a full season. Every time you go hitless in a game, it means you’re four or five hits off the pace.

“What Rodney and George both said was that when you get into September, the media attention grows and it’s so hard to make up ground. If you’re at .395 in September and you got 3-for-5 - a good day - you pick up one point.”

Gwynn leans back on the dugout bench, shakes his head.

“Can I do it? I don’t know. I think in ‘94, when the strike wiped out the last six weeks of the season, a lot of records might have fallen. Junior was after the home run record, Matt Williams was, too. And I was hitting .394,” he said.

“We’ll never know, but that was the closest I’ve come. I’d like to go through a September with the chance.”

Gwynn’s career has been marked by consistency on the field, criticism off. In 1990, teammates Jack Clark and Mike Pagliarulo ripped Gwynn for selfishness and, by the end of the season, someone hung a disfigured Gwynn doll from the roof of the Padres dugout.

“I kept playing, kept my focus during the games,” Gwynn says now, “but during the day I’d wonder - ‘Are they right? Am I hurting the team?’ ”

When he sat down with Hall of Famer Ted Williams to talk hitting, Williams chided Gwynn for not hitting more home runs, not sitting on the inside pitch and driving it more.

“I disagreed with him then, I disagree with him now,” Gwynn said. “Respectfully. I do turn more on the ball now than I have in the past, but I won’t give up the outside strike to sit on an inside pitch, I won’t do it.

“I look at power hitters who strike out 125-150 times a year and it scares me. I couldn’t live with myself striking out that often.”

In his major league career, Gwynn has never struck out more than 56 times in a single season. In 1994, the year he batted .394 in 110 games, Gwynn struck out five times.

This year, he is on pace for career highs in home runs and RBI and still close enough to .400 that he draws questions about it daily.

“The more I say it’s silly to talk about in May or June, the more people ask about it,” Gwynn said, squeaking. “I’ve got it down to a couple of answers. One, ‘I’ve never done it.’ Two, ‘it’s too early to talk about.’ If I wasn’t such a nice guy, I’d tell ‘em all to go to hell.”

Gwynn grins.

“But I don’t. I got my job, they’ve got theirs.”

Gwynn is unlike most of his peers. He will show up five, six hours before a game to work on his stroke, take extra fly balls. He will stay up until 3 a.m. in his hotel room on the road - watching video-taped at-bats.

“My mom and dad worked every day, how can I do less?” Gwynn asks.

If that’s where the work ethic came from, what about his personality?

“My dad used to get so mad when he’d read something about my weight or some criticism,” Gwynn said “My mom can get pretty mad, too - she got all over me for making her bake pecan pies for the clubhouse one day.

“My grandmother, I take after her. She loves everybody.”

Is she tough? Gwynn giggles at the question, then levels a stare at the man who asks it.

“All us Gwynns are tough,” he said. He doesn’t squeak when he says it.

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