Padres’ Gwynn Is a Big Hit : National League Batting Champion Was Busy in Winter

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Call it love among the kumquats. Or sushi bars. Or skyscrapers. Or even trash barrels. It was that kind of winter for Tony Gwynn, National League batting champion.

When a fellow hits .351 and plays in the World Series, he attracts a bit of attention--all the way from New York to Tokyo with a concentration of affection in San Diego.

The 24-year-old Gwynn, who hits everywhere he goes, seemed to be a hit everywhere he went.

“I know winning the batting title was the reason I had the opportunities I had and I wanted to take advantage of them,” he said. “It might never happen again.”


Look at his averages and try telling the world’s pitchers it will never happen again. He hit .331 in Walla Walla, Wash., and .462 in Amarillo, Tex., in 1981; came back with .328 in Hawaii and .289 with the Padres in 1982; added .342 in Las Vegas and .309 with the Padres in 1983; and everyone seems quite aware of the .351 in 1984.

With Tony Gwynn, the batting average always seems to start with .3--and fill in the blanks. This spring, he has been closer to .500 than .300.

“I’ve never had a major problem hitting the baseball,” he said.

He was sitting in the Padre dugout before another exhibition game in which he had two hits. He played two innings. Yawn. Do a few laps in the outfield and then sign autographs. More autographs.

Just after the season ended, he made an appearance in Fullerton. Scheduled for two hours, he was there closer to five.

It was not much different when he was not making a scheduled appearance.

“People didn’t used to recognize me,” he said. “I could go to the grocery store without any problem. Now I’ll be going through the fruit at the Safeway on Mission Gorge and people pushing shopping carts will be coming up to me for autographs. No major problem.”

Not for Tony Gwynn.

“The wildest thing happened at a baseball card show in New York,” Gwynn said. “A guy came up to me with a bat I broke working out in Long Beach during the winter before my first big league camp.”

That would have been the winter of 1980-81. Gwynn recognized the bat. It had no signature, just the name printed on the barrel.

“I remember breaking it, and I remember putting it in the trash can,” he said, “and here this guy shows up with it at a show all the way in New York. He bought it from some dealer for $8. A broken bat.”

Gwynn has no idea who fetched the bat out of the trash, or even why. However, someone must have had a good eye for assessing future stars.

And now that bat has a signature.

Some other anonymous entrepreneur had the foresight to get a picture of Gwynn and Don Mattingly, the American League batting champion, at the 1984 All-Star game.

“I talked to Don Mattingly for maybe 30 seconds,” he said, “and I go to a baseball card show and here’s this picture. It looked like we posed for it. I guess it was a big seller.”

He is completely comfortable playing basketball, which happened to be his No. 1 sport during his days at San Diego State. However, there was not much time for basketball in the winter of 1984-85.

“A couple of charity games,” he said, “and that was it.”

In fact, he didn’t even have a chance to get down to the Sports Arena to watch his alma mater enjoy its best season.

Gwynn signed through 1989 with the Padres holding an option for 1990 as well. It is what Gwynn called a “flat fee” contract, no incentive clauses and no deferred money.

“I can make incentives with my shoe contract and batting glove contract,” he said. “We thought it was fair for us, and they thought it was fair for them. I’ve played well and they’ve rewarded me. I’ve got security now and it’s a good feeling. This year should be more relaxing. I’m going to go out and play baseball and have fun.”

Gwynn always seems to be having fun. He has one of those sunshine and flowers personalities regardless of whether he has gone 0 for 4 (rarely) or 3 for 4.

Last season, when he had 213 hits and 69 multiple-hit games, he had 10 hitting streaks of five or more games and three hitting streaks of 12 games. He has not gone more than two games without a hit since July of 1983.

There is also the possibility he will be batting third rather than second. Manager Dick Williams has indicated Al Bumbry will hit second when he is in the lineup.

That would separate Gwynn from leadoff man Wiggins, whose speed unsettled the infield and opened holes that Gwynn uncannily seemed to find.

“I honestly think I’m a better No. 2 hitter than No. 3 hitter,” Gwynn said. “I don’t see myself as an RBI man.”

Williams, however, noted that Gwynn drove in 71 runs in 1984, and said his charts indicated Gwynn had the highest “RBI percentage” on the team. In other words, with runners in scoring position, Gwynn did the best job of getting them in.

Regardless, the manager must have some reservations about breaking up the Wiggins-Gwynn parlay at the top of the batting order. Gwynn certainly has reservations.

“When Wig is on first,” he said, “I get better pitches to hit. When he goes, there’s a hole somewhere because someone’s got to cover. If it’s the shortstop, for example, I can hit a routine ground ball that’ll get through for a hit. You can’t believe how huge that hole looks to me when I’m batting.”

“His bat control is amazing,” Williams said. “And he can take a couple of strikes to give Wiggins a chance to run without getting himself in trouble. No one hits like Gwynn with two strikes. He’s just a great hitter.”