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Gwynn Is Hoping for Fast Start : Padres Take On Giants Tonight in Season Opener

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The thing of it was, Tony Gwynn went on this radio call-in show thinking he would only be asked about baseball. That’s what he does, that’s all he does. He plays baseball.

“That’s what I am, I thought,” Gwynn said. “I’m not a rock star, I’m not a movie star, never wanted to be one. I’m just a guy who likes to play baseball.”

The first call came in. It wasn’t about baseball.

“It was some lady complaining because I didn’t sign her son’s autograph,” Gwynn said.

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The second call came in. It wasn’t about baseball.

“It was some other lady saying, ‘Yeah, I was with that first lady, and you didn’t sign my son’s autograph either,’ ” Gwynn said.

The third call came in. It was about to make Gwynn explode.

“It was the same thing about autographs,” Gwynn said last week. “Three straight calls, all about how stuck up I am, how terrible I am. And I thought I’d be talking about Bruce Hurst and Jack Clark.

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“Tell you what, right now I’m hurt. My concentration is hurt. I’m wondering, just what is this all about?”

What it’s about begins tonight at 7:20 at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, when the Padres open their 21st season with a game against the San Francisco Giants. This marks the official start of a six-month period where the only thing trendier than crew cuts and pleats will be those Padres, picked by any preseason magazine worth its weight in gambling advertisements to win the division championship.

This also marks the beginning of a struggle. A struggle for Manager Jack McKeon in his first full year as field boss, for slugger Jack Clark in his first year as an unquestioned team leader, for pitcher Bruce Hurst in his first year as a staff hero.

But most of all, it will be a struggle for the team’s best player, who, besides a national reputation for being a nice guy, also happens to be one of the team’s most sensitive human beings. Lately this guy has taken to wondering: Is all this hype too much? Has Tony Gwynn gotten too good for his own human good?

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“It has been worse this spring, everything has been worse,” Gwynn said. “I’m no different than I was in 1984, when nobody knew me from anybody. I’m not doing anything different. But everything is different. Everything is so unnerving to me.”

From the first days of spring training in Yuma, Gwynn has been struggling with what he perceives as almost sudden national recognition, the same kind of instant applause that could follow the team until October.

In Gwynn’s case, maybe it’s because last season he became the first man to win three batting titles in a five-year period since Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente in the 1960s. Or maybe it’s the way he did it--overcoming the largest midseason deficit of any batting champion since World War II, making up 92 points on Montreal’s Andres Galarraga, who on July 4 led him .345 to .253. After that, fighting a sore surgically repaired index finger and a sprained thumb, Gwynn still hit .360 to push his average to .313. It was one of the more incredible feats in Padre history.

Gwynn didn’t think his season was much. After all, he would gently remind that the .313 average was the lowest by a National League batting champion in history. But nobody agreed with him.

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From his first week this spring in Yuma, he was forced to block all incoming calls on his hotel phone because of a crank call threat from someone who implied he was too famous. Then he was forced to finally turn down autograph seekers at the Yuma complex after signing for an average of an hour a day, simply because he wanted to see his family. Then he was forced to hear one woman threaten to sue him for not signing.

“I care about how these people feel, while some players don’t give a darn how they feel,” Gwynn said. “But because there’s not enough hours in the day, I’m the bad guy.”

He no longer enjoyed taking extra batting practice in Yuma cages, because for the first time, with all the people swarmed around the cage, he felt like an animal.

Having survived the spring madness to still hit .303, Gwynn would thus like to announce that this opening day, his sixth straight as a Padre, is special.

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“I haven’t really said it before, but this year is my biggest challenge,” Gwynn said. “I have to learn to handle everything that is happening around me, plus I’ve got to prove that last year wasn’t me, that I can get off to a better start and not have come from so far behind. I know when I’m swinging well, and for too much of last year, it wasn’t me.”

Padre Notes

Sunday came and went and Manager Jack McKeon still could not--or would not--announce the identity of his starting third baseman for tonight’s opener with San Francisco. It could still be either Randy Ready, Tim Flannery or Luis Salazar. Although McKeon had earlier guessed he might have an announcement at Sunday’s workout at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, he began his day by sticking a note on his office door that read: “I have not decided on 3B yet. Will sleep on it tonight. Jack McKeon.”


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