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Seasons Change, but Not Reliability of Padres’ Gwynn

It must be August. The grass is green, the sun is hot, the days are getting shorter, the flood waters are finally receding--and Tony Gwynn is hitting .358. And leading the league. In hits and average.

Happens every summer. Set your clock by it.

Phenoms come and go. They get off hot. They’re batting .398 by May or June. They get everybody all excited. Microphones in their faces, endorsements at their fingertips.

Nobody pays much heed to Tony Gwynn. He simply goes up there every day, sighs, draws his line in the batter’s box, checks his left foot, swings the bat below his knees like a crouched cat’s tail--and then lashes out one, two, three or four hits, creeps up the ladder, scores winning runs. You’d think he was masked. He’s as unnoticed as a busboy, as taken for granted as a butler.

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Along about July, his name begins to appear in the small type under the heading, “Major League Leaders.” The early-season bloomers begin to slide down the batting ladder, and Tony begins to slide up.

The figures improve and keep improving. The new names spiral down until they’re off the page. Tony’s figures soar.

He doesn’t hit three-run home runs. He doesn’t drive in runs by the carload. All he does is stand there and go two for four, three for four, even four for four. You can’t get the ball past him. If he doesn’t like a pitch, he fouls it off.

He might very well be the best pure hitter in the game today. And one of the best ever. It’s for sure he’s the toughest out. He annually leads the league in fewest strikeouts--only 16 in 520 at-bats last season. In 1991 he became the first National League player in 13 years to post fewer than 20 strikeouts.

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If he played in New York, he’d be a candy bar. In San Diego, he plays second fiddle to a koala. Even in other towns, fans ooh and aah when a Barry Bonds or a Ken Griffey Jr. comes to bat. With Tony, they might go out for a beer. It’s “Oh, yes, of course, Tony Gwynn.” It’s like you ring for him--and then he goes three for four--and comes and takes the tray away. He’s what Joe Garagiola would call a “room service” hitter. He should go up to bat with a napkin on his arm.

You wind him up and he gets you 200 hits, 90 to 117 runs scored. He’s as dependable as sunrise. He even used to steal bases--56 one season. He wins the batting championship--four times in his career already. He’s a marvelous outfielder who once threw out five baserunners in a game and annually finishes in the top three in outfield assists. You run on him at your peril.

He hit .370 in 1987. That was the highest batting average anyone had had in the National League in 40 years, or since Stan Musial did it in 1948. He has never batted below .300 in his major league career.

Now, would you like me to tell you what he doesn’t do? Easy. He doesn’t win the league MVP. Never. He’s as overlooked as fine print when it comes to the balloting.

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There is a school of thought which holds that, to win the MVP, first your team has to win the pennant.

OK. I’ll drink to that.

So, in 1984, the San Diego Padres won the pennant. They beat the Cubs in the playoffs. Gwynn figured largely in the victory. In the pivotal fourth game, with the score tied, 5-5, he opened the ninth inning with a single. Steve Garvey then hit a home run. And that was the old gonfalon.

He batted .351 that year to lead the league.

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All systems clear for MVP, right?

Wrong! The MVP went to the Cubs’ Ryne Sandberg.

Sandberg didn’t win the batting title. He hit .314, is what he did. Oh, he drove in 84 runs. But Tony Gwynn--on the pennant winner--drove in 71.

And Tony Gwynn finished third in the MVP balloting to Sandberg.

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One of Tony’s problems is, he doesn’t look the part. He looks about as much like a baseball player as Charles Barkley does a basketball player. He looks kind of--well, round comes to mind.

As with Barkley, the appearances are deceptive. Tony Gwynn could probably arm-wrestle Arnold Schwarzenegger even-up. He was an all-conference point guard at San Diego State and still holds the school’s record for most assists. He was drafted by the Clippers as well as the Padres.

He’s really a great artisan. He goes about his game the way a violin-maker might. “I do a lot of things wrong at the plate,” he says. “I wrap the bat (hold it awkwardly around the back of the head). They say you shouldn’t be able to see the barrel of the bat when you’re up there. But I do. I hit off the wrong foot. I drop my left leg.”

Having done all that, he proceeds to wallop the ball off the right-field wall. He probably has the worst form since Stan Musial--and gets the same results.

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He doesn’t insist the pitch be a strike, saying: “I’m up there to swing the bat. I make a lot of mistakes. I’ve hit a lot of balls that weren’t strikes.”

But when he got through hitting them, they were doubles. He has 309 of those in his career.

“Sometimes, guys who hit only at strikes, miss them,” he says.

The San Diego Padres are less a team than a company of castaways these days, marooned and abandoned by what was the engine and crew of their fragile franchise.

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Ordinarily, the game of baseball is so set up that if a lineup is suddenly denuded of key hitters like Gary Sheffield and Fred McGriff and company, the guys who hit behind (or in front of) them--in this case, Tony Gwynn--suddenly start to look at a lot of pitches that are as unhittable as a lottery. The art of baseball calls for “pitching around” a dangerous batter when his surrounding company is not formidable.

Do they do this to Tony Gwynn? He smiles, shakes his head. “No. Because they figure the worst thing I can do to them is double. They pitch around home run hitters. Me, they come right at. They still challenge me. They put pitches in the strike zone.”

A serious mistake. Tony Gwynn is batting .487 for his last 18 games. He had the 30th four-hit game of his career against the Dodgers the other night.

Happens every August. You don’t need a calendar. When Tony Gwynn is leading the league in hits, average and on-base percentage, you know the leaves will start to change any minute now. And you know it’s November when the headline says: “Gwynn Overlooked in MVP Voting Again.”

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