Hitting the Hall
By Tom Cushman
THIS STORY BEGINS ON AN AFTERNOON in the spring of 1979. Two outfielders from San Diego State’s baseball team had been injured when an automobile struck the bicycles they were riding. As Jim Dietz, longtime coach of the Aztecs, was struggling to find competent replacements, into his office walked Bobby Meacham. A gifted infielder (he’d later have a six-year major-league career), Meacham told his coach there was a “pretty good” outfielder on SDSU’s basketball team—one he’d played against in Los Angeles–area summer leagues.
“Had it been anyone but Bobby, I probably wouldn’t have given it serious thought,” says Dietz. “But Bobby was an outstanding young man. When he had something to say, I listened.” Following Meacham’s advice, Dietz contacted Tony Gwynn, point guard for Tim Vezie’s basketball Aztecs. “I’d never seen Tony play,” Dietz admits. “But in college you can’t call somebody up from the minor leagues. We gave him a chance.
“There were flaws. He was way behind in fundamentals. His throwing arm wasn’t developed. I watched him in batting practice,though, and he had a short, compact swing. Within a few days he was hitting everything thrown at him. So we hid him in left field and went from there.”
Seated in a lounge beneath the San Diego State stadium that now bears his name, Tony Gwynn offers memories of that pivotal point in his life: “I hadn’t played baseball in a year and a half,” he says. “I stunk defensively. Hit .301, but it wasn’t a solid .301. I promised Coach Dietz I’d do better the next year.
“When baseball practice began again, I cheated. I’d slip over and work with the outfielders, take batting practice, do a lot of throwing. Smokey [Smokey Gaines had replaced Vezie as basketball coach] never knew I was doing it.
“That spring I went from terrible to decent defensively.” He hit .423. And was named to the All-America team.
“Fate is involved in everyone’s life,” says Dietz. “If Tony hadn’t played college baseball, he wouldn’t have been seen by major-league scouts. He probably wouldn’t have been drafted. We’re talking about a career that likely wouldn’t have happened if those kids hadn’t been injured.”
Instead, a story that began with Bobby Meacham offering a tip to his college coach should spin to an apex in early January when, almost certainly, it will be announced that Tony Gwynn has been elected to Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
“I’M EXCITED ABOUT IT,” Gwynn admits, “but I’m also cautious. I was consistent at what I did, but I wasn’t a dominant player. And my team never won a World Series.
“There’s also the question of how many get in. Cal Ripkin becomes eligible this year. So do some other very good players, including Mark McGwire.”
Gwynn agrees that McGwire’s candidacy is unique, in that—following his bumbling performance last year before a congressional committee investigating steroid use in Major League Baseball— it’s certain to create widespread controversy.
“In my mind, he’s a Hall of Famer,” Gwynn says, “but he’s going to be a test case. It’ll be interesting to see how people who vote [Baseball Writers Association members] react.
“The steroid thing is very upsetting to me. I look back on my career with no regrets. I didn’t do amphetamines or steroids. That there are guys who obviously did is unfair to those playing it straight. And it does put a new wrinkle on Hall of Fame consideration.”
As for Gwynn’s own case, caution seems a needless reaction. Consistency when defined by eight National League batting championships (a record shared only by Honus Wagner) should be sufficient to quiet even the most daunting skeptics.
Supporting statistics also include 3,141 hits, 1,383 runs scored, 329 stolen bases, l,l38 RBIs, a lifetime batting average of .338 and five Gold Gloves. An added plus: Probably no player of his generation was more media-friendly and—here’s another consistency—genial to all.
“One of the best ever at making himself available to media and fans,” says former Padres manager Bruce Bochy, whose observations were drawn from roles of both teammate and manager. “And I’ll never forget how, when I was a rookie manager, he went out of his way to help me establish credibility in the clubhouse and elsewhere.
“When I came to the Padres as a player, I was amazed at how easy Tony made everything look. I soon realized the reason for this was how hard he worked at his craft. I truly believe he is one of the greatest hitters of all time. Yet I never saw the ego you’d expect from someone that good.” According to Gwynn, hard work was partnered with good fortune. “Under the circumstances, I obviously was very fortunate to have a chance to play at San Diego State,” he says. “Scouts were coming to see Bobby Meacham, so I received built-in exposure from that.”
Add the fact that Casey McKeon was a teammate, and Tony’s good fortune is even more apparent. Casey’s father is Jack McKeon, who at the time was general manager of the Padres and—because of his son’s involvement—a frequent spectator at SDSU games. It was McKeon who eventually insisted the organization draft Gwynn, which it did in 1981’s third round.
“I get to Walla Walla [Washington, site of a rookie-league team], and the majorleaguers go on strike,” Gwynn recalls.
“Suddenly, we have Bobby Tolan, Frank Howard, Clyde McCullough, all these really knowledgeable people as instructors. I absorbed a lot from them.
“Next, I’m pulled aside and told there was an injury at the AA level [Amarillo], and they jumped me over two guys to fill that spot. I began sensing that my ducks were lining up real well.”
The following spring, he was in majorleague camp, and by midsummer beginning a 20-year ride in San Diego. “None of it was as easy as the final statistics make it seem,” Gwynn insists. “It took four or five years before I felt secure that I could play at that level on a regular basis.
“I was a grinder—always thought I needed to work harder than anyone else to maintain consistency. That put a lot of pressure on my wife in raising two kids. Mom deserves credit for what they are.” What they are as young adults are success stories. Anthony Gwynn spent September of this year as leadoff hitter for the Milwaukee Brewers. Sister Anisha is a highly talented vocalist who’s also studying fashion design.
Alicia Gwynn insists her husband has made significant contributions as a father. “I didn’t come into this blind,” she says. “Tony and I grew up on the same street in Long Beach, so I’ve known him for a long time. I knew he really loved his sport. I knew he’d want to work hard to secure his family. Tony is a real person, quiet at home, but involved. “Of course I want to see him in the Hall of Fame. But basically, I’m just very grateful for what we have. This city’s been good to us.”
IT WASN’T ALL SATIN SMOOTH. There was the bankruptcy incident early in Gwynn’s career. “My first agent ripped us off,” says Tony. “We had no real choice but to do what we did. Still, it was extremely embarrassing. And painful to read the hate mail—people labeling me as just another millionaire athlete using the system to his advantage.”
There was the Jack Clark episode, in which first-baseman Clark, during his brief San Diego stay, publicly accused Gwynn of being a selfish athlete. “Tony was really hurt by that,” says John Boggs, Gwynn’s agent and close friend. “He’s the most focused individual I know, but to suggest he’s not a team player—there’s no rhyme or reason to that.”
“He was a soldier for us from start to finish, and a leader in his later years,” says Bochy.
There’s been Gwynn’s frustration at San Diego State, since returning to replace the retired Jim Dietz as head baseball coach. “It’s been a major learning experience for me,” Gywnn admits, “but I think we’re getting a grip on it—in particular how to handle the recruiting. What we need to do now is win.”
There was the summer of 1994— when labor strife, which had helped ease his entry into professional sport, did a reversal, perhaps depriving Tony Gwynn of the ultimate in baseball immortality. “To this day, I really believe I’d have hit .400,” he says. Gwynn was at .394 when another strike ended that season.
“I was so locked in at the time—hitting everything on the screws,” he recalls. “I remember talking to George Brett and Stan Musial [Hall of Fame hitters of the Gwynn ilk] about how easy the game suddenly seemed. And Stan saying tome, ‘When you get into that sort of groove, it’s like you have a little man standing on your shoulder, whispering, “This next pitch will be a fast ball.” ’ ”
What does one do when a hitter of Gwynn’s caliber is completely in tune? Suggested Davey Johnson, then manager of the Mets, “Throw it down the middle and hope that confuses him.”
There were publicized discussions with Ted Williams, the last man to hit .400—one who also had launched 521 homers. Reports said Williams urged Gwynn to begin turning on inside pitches and driving the ball with power. Tony’s Hall of Fame zone had been middle-of-the-plate-out, from which he’d sting line drives through infield holes.
As the prodding continued, Gwynn eventually went to a slightly heavier, longer bat, and in 1997 he had 13 home runs at the All Star break—the last coming on a mighty shot to center- field seats. “After that, they stopped pitching me inside,” Tony recalls. “And a light went on.
“I spoke at a [San Diego] Hall of Champions affair shortly afterwards. Ted Williams was there. During my remarks, I said, ‘Mr. Williams, it’s taken four years, but I finally understand what you were trying to tell me. Show them you can hit the inside pitch with power, and they’ll go back outside, to your strength.’ Ted just looked at me, smiled and winked.”
Meaning, one suspects, “See you in Cooperstown.”