Gwynn Goes to Bat : Baseball Champion Connects With Patients at Long Beach VA Hospital

Times Staff Writer

The morning treatments were over. Paralyzed men stared at "The Price Is Right" on color TVs above their beds. And then the batting champion of the National League, out of uniform in a tie and gray sports coat, walked in and Tuesday was no longer just another day in the spinal injuries ward at VA Medical Center.

"Hi, I'm Tony Gwynn," the ballplayer said, moving cautiously toward a bed, unaccustomed to a world of wheelchairs, iron lungs and deformed limbs.

From under a sheet, James Mahoney, 65, extended a frail, tattooed arm and smiled.

Mahoney was paralyzed 21 years ago when a truck he was driving went over an 80-foot bank.

"I see you're in good spirits--that's the way you have to be," said Gwynn as they shook hands.

'A Good Season' "It was a good season," Mahoney said in a soft voice.

"It was--it was. I really enjoyed it," Gwynn said.

Gwynn took out a picture of himself in his San Diego Padres uniform, swinging a bat. He signed it, gave it to Mahoney and moved to the next bed.

When Gwynn was gone, Mahoney said, "He's quite a guy. We watch him on TV, and that gives us a lot of pleasure."

At the next bed, Gwynn talked with a shirtless man, whose voice was still tinged by its New England roots.

"I was born 15 miles from Fenway Pawk in Boston," the man said. "Ted Williams is my boy."

A sign behind the bed identified him as Charles Spellman.

"Ol' Dick (Padres Manager Dick Williams) got you squared away," Spellman said. "I knew him when he was with the Red Sox. He knows his baseball."

"He sure does," Gwynn said.

Spellman, 60, said he was injured in 1959 in a freeway accident when he was on his way home from a Dodgers game at the Coliseum. He can use only his hands.

"Well, I wish you the best of luck," Gwynn said.

"Go all the way next year and maybe I'll make some money on you," Spellman said, and both men laughed.

"When you walk in and see them, it's kind of tough," Gwynn said in a hospital corridor. "You can only imagine what they've been through. But to see a smile on their faces, to see them reach out for you . . . it's something; it lifts you up.

"I've done this before. Some people smile; some don't. It's a challenge to try to make them smile. When they do, you smile too."

Gwynn, 24, a former Poly High star, was in town to be honored as the Long Beach Century Club's Athlete of the Year. He hit .351 last season and led San Diego to the National League pennant. SPOPRO International, a Long Beach social welfare organization that raises money for inner-city youth, arranged Gwynn's visit to the hospital.

In another ward, a sunny room with stainless steel apparatus and nurses excited about having a famous visitor, Scott Zemer lay with a broken back and asked Gwynn, "How are things on the outside?"

"Beautiful," Gwynn answered.

Zemer said he was reasonably sure that he has watched Gwynn in action.

"I've seen the Padres play, but I've never been specific on names," he said.

Gwynn put an autographed photo at his bedside.

Gwynn moved on to a young man who wore a Detroit Tigers cap, the team that defeated San Diego in last year's World Series.

"And we'll be back next year too," Boyd Aites, 25, said, jabbing a thin arm in jest toward Gwynn.

Aites, of Traverse City, Mich., was in a motorcycle accident last March that left him a quadriplegic.

A hospital worker was beside Aites, trying to insert a hose in his throat so he could breathe better.

"Wait," said Aites, enjoying the baseball talk.

"You're all right. You're just on the wrong team," he told Gwynn.

Gwynn reached for a picture to give him.

Across the room, next to the bed of an unsmiling man, a respirator hissed.

From a radio came a haunting Foreigner song about a life of heartache and pain:

"I want to feel what love is, I know you can show me."

A broad grin covered Aites' face.

And Gwynn matched it.

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