RIGHT AT HOME

Times Staff Writer

The most recognizable person in what is often called America's most beautiful city works in a nondescript office at a public university.

There is no plush carpeting, no leather couch; only two plain chairs and a worn swivel recliner. Rather than cherry wood, the desk is industrial steel, functional and durable like the man who sits at it. The walls are mostly barren; no self portraits, no poses with famous contemporaries. Nothing that says, here works Tony Gwynn, one of baseball's greatest hitters.

All of the awards earned over a 20-year career have been left at home. San Diego baseball fans will remember him for his 3,141 career hits -- all as a Padre -- and, in a few years, as a Hall of Famer. But his playing days are over.

Gwynn, 42, is in his first year as baseball coach at San Diego State, and he has become used to the ever-present question associated with his new gig: Why?

He has a typically straightforward answer. "Just like my playing career," he said. "I like it here."

It is the school he once played for in the city where he feels he belongs. It is home.

Gwynn's office is tucked under the seats of a stadium already named after him. But the idea of the field carrying his name certainly wasn't his idea. Padre owner John Moores offered up the money for construction -- but only if it was named after Gwynn.

"He's quite possibly the most loved person in this town," San Diego State President Stephen Weber said.

If Gwynn is known for anything as much as his hitting prowess, it's for modesty.

The only hint of his days as a high-paid major league star is the spotless customized sport utility vehicle parked just outside his office. It carries his signature near the handles of the front doors.

It's hard to say which needs Gwynn more, San Diego State, which hasn't been to the playoffs in 12 years, or college baseball, which flies under the radar of the media.

Or at least that's where it used to fly. But not here. Not anymore.

Witness Dave Kuhn, the Aztecs' longtime sports information director for baseball. On a recent morning, his office telephone was ringing almost as fast as he could jot down messages on a notebook.

Was this typical of late? "Uh, yes," he said. Has it always been this way? "Uh, no."

Season tickets doubled last year, after the announcement that Gwynn would join the staff of Jim Dietz, whom he played for from 1979 to 1981, then become coach this year. Attendance nearly tripled, and corporate support has provided a new scoreboard with video graphics.

Fellow coaches see Gwynn as a draw for a sport that gets little or no attention until the College World Series. His reputation as a player affords him immediate name recognition that even the game's winningest coaches -- USC's Mike Gillespie, Texas' Augie Garrido, Stanford's Mark Marquess -- can't match.

Rich Hill, coach at nearby University of San Diego, calls Gwynn "a great ambassador" and predicts everyone will benefit from Gwynn's presence and willingness to promote the college game.

"It's going to generate a lot of publicity for college baseball," said Hill, noting that the biggest local paper had, for the first time, assigned a reporter to the beat full time. "It's the right time for a guy like him."

At San Diego State's season opener Friday at Arizona State, Luis Gonzalez, Tony Womack and Craig Counsell of the Arizona Diamondbacks, plus former NFL quarterback Jim McMahon were among a sellout crowd of 3,972.

Arizona State, which is ranked in College Baseball's Top 10, swept three games from the Aztecs, but the draw of one of baseball's most popular players doesn't figure to wane anytime soon.

"We're excited about it," said UC Santa Barbara Coach Bob Brontsema, whose team will play host to San Diego State in a three-game series beginning Friday. "We're promoting it. I think they'd open up a booth with him signing autographs if they could."

Gwynn and his coaching staff hope to capitalize on the momentum. He promises to "get after" the nation's best high school players and college baseball's best teams.

Last season, San Diego State won 43 games but did not get invited to a regional because its schedule was deemed weak and it didn't win the Mountain West Conference tournament.

The Aztecs have never been to Omaha, site of the College World Series.

"People around here have said, 'Why not us?' " Gwynn said. "I was one of those people."

The schedule already has been significantly upgraded. Along with Arizona State, the Aztecs will play powers Miami, South Alabama and Long Beach State during nonconference play this season. Defending national champion Texas might be added as soon as next year.

USC's Gillespie said Gwynn's impact as a recruiter is already evident: The Aztecs got transfer Peter Stonard, an All-Southeastern Conference infielder from Alabama.

"When Tony Gwynn calls, they're listening and they're legitimately interested," Gillespie said. "It has to be highly attractive to players and it should be. God almighty, who wouldn't want to be coached by Tony Gwynn?"

That's leverage Gwynn, an eight-time batting champion, is certainly willing to use. His biggest problem -- at least before that sweep by Arizona State -- has been convincing recruits that he won't be a short timer with the Aztecs.

"People think this is a sideshow until my son leaves or until I get a big enough gig at ESPN," Gwynn said. "Trying to convince them otherwise was a lot tougher to some of them than I thought it would be.

"All the homes I went to this summer, the first question was 'How long you're going to be there?' "

Anthony Gwynn, the Aztecs' leadoff hitter, says it would be a mistake to underestimate his father's passion for the job.

"He wanted this job more than anybody I know," said Anthony, a preseason All-American as an outfielder. "My mom complains now that he's gone as much as he was when he was playing baseball. He's here working on the field, putting the chalk down for the lines.

"It's something he takes very seriously."

Alicia Gwynn said she used to ask her husband what he would do when he retired from professional baseball. "He told me he wanted to sit down and be a bum for two years, watch television and then do some traveling," she said.

She heard rumors he might be interested in the San Diego State job, but she says he never said much to her until the last minute.

"One day, lo and behold, he says to me, 'I need you to come to a press conference. I'm going to take the job,' " Alicia said.

Instead of Gwynn slowing down, Alicia says, he is busier than ever. "He's thrown himself in this job," she said. "When he came home after a [Padre] game, he used to wind down for a little while. Now when he hits the bed, he's asleep."

Although he was careful not to make it seem as if he was running his old coach out, Gwynn coveted the college job even while he was still with the Padres. As injuries late in his career kept him out of the lineup, he spent more time around the Aztec program watching his son -- often from behind the right-field fence with a video camera.

When Dietz announced he was retiring after 31 seasons, Gwynn made his intentions clear -- and most other established coaches who had eyes on the position quickly removed themselves from consideration. What was the point?

In a plan conceived by Athletic Director Rick Bay, Gwynn spent last season as a volunteer assistant and also got to fill in for Dietz when the coach was sidelined for seven games following the removal of a kidney stone.

"I got a taste of what it is like [to make the decisions]," Gwynn said. "I wouldn't have known what I know now if I wasn't here."

To help with Gwynn's transition into college athletics, Bay tabbed Mike Sweet, a former academic consultant in the athletic department, to be a full-time administrative assistant to the coach and help him with matters such as compliance with NCAA rules.

Most of all, Bay is impressed with skills that he believes make Gwynn a natural for the profession.

"Unlike a lot of highly gifted athletes, Tony has the ability to teach," he said. "You see a lot of former professional athletes who were successful basically because of their instincts and their innate athletic ability. They worked hard, but to ask them to teach what they did and break it down ... teaching and doing are two different skills and Tony has them both."

Gwynn, who makes a base salary of $100,000, already has experienced his share of comical moments with his players as he has tried to help them overcome a reluctance to approach him for instruction.

With a laugh, Gwynn recalled, "One guy said, 'I can't ask you how to fix my swing. You're ... you're ... Tony Gwynn!' I said, 'But that's what I'm here for!' "

Catcher Jordan Swaydan, a heavily recruited freshman from La Puente Bishop Amat High, said he was "wide-eyed" when he first met Gwynn.

But he said that after a while, "You just try to play for coach and focus on baseball."

Gwynn is at ease with his own celebrity and says he has accepted that his experience as a college coach will be different from others. For example, he can be in the last row of the stands scouting players and inevitably an autograph line will form after a fan has identified him.

Visitors come daily to the team's open practices. Members of the Creighton women's basketball team, in town for a game, came to the field seeking autographs after they learned who was the school's baseball coach.

And then there are the home visits when he's recruiting.

He said he knew "neighbors would be looking in the windows" and that some people would be intimidated. He also knew to be ready with a pen.

Punctuated by a typically hearty laugh, Gwynn jokingly asserts that "when you walk in the door you know you're going to get out the Sharpie.

"Everyone gives Terrell Owens all the credit," he added, "[but] I've been carrying a Sharpie for 20 years!"

The curiosity surrounding Gwynn and his new venture may one day cease. He said he is in it for the long run.

Being at home and being in baseball is what's important. It's what makes him comfortable in his modest office.

And comfortable in his new job.

"I know I'm doing exactly what I'm supposed to do," he said.

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