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Gwynn Turns a Rap to Raves : Padre’s Acclaim Fueled in Part by Clark’s Rips

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tony Gwynn stops talking. His face becomes contorted, showing an odd mixture of fascination and anguish. His mind races, contemplating how it has become a cruel, if not nefarious, irony.

It’s all because of him. That’s why this is happening, isn’t it?

Jack Clark, the man who caused him more anger and grief than he thought possible in the world of baseball, is responsible for Tony Gwynn’s sudden ascent to the spotlight.

Gwynn leads the major leagues with a .365 batting average. His 42 RBIs rank among the league leaders. And no one in the National League is close to his 136 total bases.

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It’s not as if he’s doing anything different, he tells himself. He’s doing the same thing he has done throughout his nine years with the Padres. Never has he batted less than .300. No one can match his four batting titles.

But it’s as if the country suddenly awoke and discovered Gwynn, extolling him as one of the finest hitters in the game’s history.

Gwynn, speaking almost in a whisper, says, “I know something has brought me into the public’s eye, and that’s probably what it is. I wouldn’t want anyone in the world to go through what I did last year, but what happened has brought everything into focus.

“That’s what’s so irritating. People are looking for changes in me. People keep asking me what I’m doing different. I haven’t changed one bit.

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“But after what happened last year, it’s like everyone has been evaluating me all over again. And that’s not right.”

Said John Boggs, Gwynn’s agent and close friend: “In a perverse way, what happened last year and what was said about him (have) illuminated Tony Gwynn the player and Tony Gwynn the person.

“There was a lot of pain and agony he went through last year. It was a nightmare. Now, it almost seems like because of all the fuss Jack Clark made about him, he finally is receiving his due recognition.”

Gwynn still is not a household name outside Southern California. In the latest All-Star balloting, Gwynn is only fourth among National League outfielders, behind two players (Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis) who are on the disabled list.

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And the only time you’ll see him on a national TV commercial is promoting Denny’s, who apparently couldn’t squeeze in Nolan Ryan, too.

Yet, for the first time, Gwynn is capturing the imagination of the American public. He’s on a pace to get 237 hits. . . . He could become the first five-time National League batting champion since Stan Musial. . . . He is uncanny in the clutch, batting .438 with runners in scoring position. . . . And he’s flirting with .400.

“To tell you the truth,” Gwynn said, “this is the most fun I’ve ever had. God, it’s so nice not to feel you have to defend yourself every day. Well, I still do, but at least that’s not the focus anymore.

“What do you think? I’m doing all right for a selfish SOB.”

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Gwynn sucked in his cheeks, pursed his lips and burst out laughing, harder and harder.

“Oh, man, I’m having fun again,” he said.

Sometime this afternoon, Gwynn and Ozzie Smith of the St. Louis Cardinals will meet around the batting cage and talk. They’ll talk about their teams. They’ll talk about how they’ve been playing. They’ll talk about their families. And before they part, Gwynn will thank him.

Once again.

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It was nearly a year ago when Smith read of the ugly accusations made by Clark, Gwynn’s teammate, calling him a selfish player. Smith winced, remembering the pain that seared through his own body when he, too, was a teammate of Clark in St. Louis.

The comments were so similar, it was like 1987 all over again, when Clark accused Smith of being selfish, saying his image was fooling the city of St. Louis, but not his teammates.

It was like stepping back in the Twilight Zone, Smith said. Clark also was in his free-agent year in 1987, like last season. The Cardinals, like the Padres, were slow and deliberate in their contract negotiations with Clark. And Smith, like Gwynn, was the media darling of the city--and in the process of receiving multi-year contracts.

So last season, Smith impulsively picked up the telephone and called Gwynn. He related his experiences with Clark in 1987. He talked about the hurt and pain he endured, how he questioned his own talents, and warned Gwynn not to do the same.

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“Knowing what type of person Tony is,” Smith said, “it behooved me to see what he was going through. It was the same thing I went through with (Clark). There was envy, jealousy, and just like Tony, I was the most popular player in town.

“I told him, ‘It’s not your fault. Don’t change. The way we approach the game, the way we do things, is not wrong. If people construe that as being selfish, so be it.’

“The bottom line is that Tony’s a better person than he is a hitter, and you know he’s a pretty good hitter.”

Gwynn prefers not to discuss specifics of the conversation with Smith, and like many of those in the baseball industry who called, he’d prefer to keep the conversations private. Still, when people such as Smith and Reggie Jackson are calling your home and offering support, Gwynn finds it impossible to hide his gratitude.

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“What Ozzie and others did for me means a lot,” he said. “I’ll never stop thanking those people. And I’ll keep thanking them every time I see them.

“At the same time, I’m not going to forget what happened to me last year, no way. I still get pretty teed off when I talk about it, to tell you the truth. I sit here and wonder why I had to go through what I did last year.

“Why didn’t anybody say anything? Why didn’t anybody defend me? Why didn’t somebody stand up for me?

“I’ll always remember how no one stood up for me in our (team) meeting. No one in the organization stepped forward for me. There were a lot of people who wanted to run me out of town.

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“I think people would like me to forget all about it, you know, forgive and forget. But no-o-o-o-o, that’ll always be with me.

“Always.”

He calls it his pea-shooter. It measures 32 1/2 inches and weighs 31 ounces. It’s the smallest Louisville Slugger in the major leagues. And it’s the weapon Gwynn has used to become the most prolific hitter in the National League.

Everyone in the game knows Gwynn’s bat by now. He used it to bat .351 in his first full season in the big leagues. He used it to win three consecutive batting titles. Now, he’s tearing up the league with it again, turning up among the league leaders in 12 different offensive categories.

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“It’s like playing Michael Jordan,” Smith said. “There’s no way you can stop him, you just try to figure out a way to slow him down.”

Said Padre teammate Darrin Jackson: “I’ve played with a few guys who are doggone good hitters, guys like Rafael Palmeiro and Mark Grace. But, man, there’s no comparison. Tony’s like a machine.”

Gwynn has moved into a tie with Stan Musial with a .331 career batting average, ranking 11th in National League history. Wade Boggs of the Boston Red Sox is the only active player with a higher batting average.

Yet because he batted .309 last season . . . because of the clubhouse turmoil . . . because of his broken finger . . . because of the tumor removed from his neck in the off-season . . .

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“The way they’re making him feel,” John Boggs said, “it’s as if he’s going to be the Comeback Player of the Year.”

Really, the only person unimpressed by all this is Gwynn. He scoffs at the notion he can make a run at .400, certainly not by walking only 40 times a year. He refuses to even talk about the Hall of Fame, says his wife, Alicia, considering it almost preposterous that his name is even being mentioned while he’s playing. And while everyone is talking about a fifth batting title, he’s much more concerned with a division title.

“That’s all he talks about now,” said Alicia Gwynn, “how he wants to win. He wants to get back in the World Series. I don’t know if I’ve seen him so hungry to win before. He doesn’t care if he wins another batting title, as long as he could get that ring.”

Gwynn concedes there will be a time when he’ll bask in his achievements this season. There’ll be a time when he tells the world, ‘I told you so.’ But not now. Not until the season ends, and the final hits and RBIs are tabulated.

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“I can’t think of a guy who was put on a pedestal for what he did in the first half,” Gwynn said. “But it’s still early. Things can happen.

“It’s just like now, how many people do you hear talking about my weight? I lost five pounds from last year (218 to 213), but that’s not going to make a difference. You don’t hear people yelling out, ‘He’s too fat. He’s not what he used to be. Blah-blah-blah.’ But, if I go into a rut, you’ll hear it again.

“That’s why I’m not going to say anything now. But when October comes, watch out. There’ll be a big, ‘I told you so.’

“And believe me, it’ll be a big one.”

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Gwynn started laughing once again, picked up his pea-shooter and walked toward the batting cage.

It was time to go to work.


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