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Gwynn limps to the finish
The toughest time, San Diego Padre General Manager Kevin Towers suspects, wasn't Thursday, when Tony Gwynn made his retirement at the end of the season official. Nor, Towers said, will it be in September or whenever Gwynn makes his final plate appearance. Towers believes Gwynn will get through that and the long winter but will be hit hardest in February, when he knows former teammates will be packing for spring training and for which he always left early.
"I'd be going about 80 on the 8 Freeway to Arizona and Tony would bomb past me going about 125," Towers said. "I mean, Tony would already be in the batting cage by the time I'd get there and I'd say to myself, "OK, camp has officially started.' I'm going to miss seeing him in the cage, and I think that's when he'll miss it the most."
A 20-year career of 3,124 hits is ending, and who can say for sure when it will hit hardest? For now, at 41, standing behind a lectern at Qualcomm Stadium, Gwynn said he knows the clock is ticking and hopes he can finally put the pompoms away, that he can stop being relegated to dispensing only wisdom and sunflower seeds on the bench, that he can finally come off the disabled list and convert the final three months of this final season into more than a farewell tour.
"I'm stubborn, really stubborn," he said, "and it took me awhile to get to the point where I finally had to think about doing something else. I originally planned to retire at the end of last year, but the year didn't go exactly the way I wanted it to go, so I came back to try and redeem myself.
"Obviously, that hasn't happened, but I still have three months left and I'm still rehabbing, still working hard to get back in the outfield, and I hope to do that very soon. I mean, the thing I want most at this point is to get back in the lineup."
The Hall of Fame beckons for the eight-time National League batting champion, but Gwynn has been limping toward the finish. A sixth surgery on his left knee limited him to 48 at-bats last year, and hamstring strains have prevented him from playing since May 10 of this year. He could be activated soon, but his role over the final three months is likely to be that of a pinch-hitter.
"If he can't go to right field, if his legs won't allow it, we'll get him some pinch-hitting at-bats," Manager Bruce Bochy said. "As the best pure hitter in the game, he's a nice commodity in that role, and I think it will be easier for Tony to accept now that he definitely knows this will be his last year and he doesn't have to keep the bar as high. That's why this is a sad day and a happy day. It takes a little pressure off him so he can go be a pinch-hitter and not feel badly about it. He hasn't lost anything off his swing or hand/eye coordination, and that's incredible."
How it will play out for Gwynn over his final three months isn't certain. Nor has it been decided how the Padres will honor his legacy beyond retiring uniform No. 19, President Larry Lucchino said, adding that Gwynn is the "gold standard," the greatest hitter of his generation, the greatest sports hero ever in San Diego, irreplaceable as player and person.
As the former president of the Baltimore Orioles, Lucchino said there was a "remarkable parallel" between Gwynn and Baltimore's Cal Ripken Jr., who is also retiring at the end of the season, in that "they have personified their franchises and that doesn't happen much anymore" and "they have also recognized their role and responsibility with the fans and community."
In a packed news conference, devoid of teammates, Gwynn touched on his desire to become the baseball coach at San Diego State, his alma mater, and said, "this is a sad day but a happy day, too. I know I have more to offer than just playing baseball. I'm looking forward to the next challenge in my life because I think I can be pretty successful at whatever it is. Everybody knows what I want to do, and I think coaching is what I would do best, but if I don't get (the San Diego State job), that's OK. There are a lot of other things out there."
Gwynn said it had always been his secret goal to play 20 years in the big leagues and he is proud to have done it in one uniform because it took loyalty on his and the club's part and simply doesn't happen often during a transitory era.
He laughed in reflecting on the Padres' former colors and said, "Even when it was a brown one it was still a major league uniform and special to me. The back of my baseball card from here to eternity will look pretty good."
In responding to questions, Gwynn also said:
-- He would accept an honorary appointment to the National League all-star team, as Ripken is expected to receive in the American League, providing he doesn't take the place of a player who deserves to be there.
"I can't honestly stand here with 48 at-bats and say I deserve to go," he said.
-- It would be wonderful to enter the Hall of Fame with Ripken in 2007, but he hasn't played with the hall as a goal and, of course, he doesn't have a vote.
"I'd be lying if I said that I didn't think what I've done would qualify or that it isn't good enough," Gwynn said. "For me, however, I've always said it's easier to see greatness in other people and more difficult in myself. I love to play and have tried to play the best I can. Where people rate me is up to them, but I'm happy with my consistency."
-- He has no regrets and too many highlights, but, as a guy who came up basically as a hitter, "winning my first Gold Glove will always be special to me."
He also cited the World Series home run he hit in his first at-bat of his first game at Yankee Stadium in 1998, the 3,000th hit in Montreal in 1999, his appearance with Ted Williams on the mound at Fenway Park before the 1999 All-Star game and his many conversations with Williams -- "they made a big impact on my last six years when I was a much better hitter than in my first 14" -- and other great hitters such as Rod Carew, Pete Rose and George Brett.
What would he like to do in his final at bat?
"At this point, I'd like to just get an at-bat," he said, laughing. "But if I could do it my way, I'd love to hit a ground ball between shortstop and third base, watch the shortstop and third baseman dive for it, round first base, smile and say, "Might as well end it the way I started it.' Of course, I'll probably hit a fly ball to left field because I chicken-winged and got my elbow up, but either way it goes it's been great."