SAN DIEGO — At 1:27 p.m. last Sunday, Padre rookie Shawn Abner grabbed his glove and ran toward right field. There was already a player there. Abner pointed at him.
After playing 157 games in the 1987 season, it was Tony Gwynn's time to leave.
Slowly, he jogged off. The 35,575 fans at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium stood and cheered. Gwynn lifted his cap and slowly circled, so that everyone could see his smiling face. He turned toward his teammates. They had collected at the dugout's top step. They embraced him, slapped his hands and clutched at his back.
But for Tony Gwynn, it was not enough. It may never be enough.
Through the cheers, he says he hears jeers. He says he hears people crying out for a guy with 35 home runs and 110 runs batted in, a guy whose swing is shown nightly on ESPN, a guy he will never be.
Others get the national endorsements, even more of the local endorsements. Others get the opportunities and venues to reach the public off the field the way Gwynn loves to reach them on it.
But even when all eyes are on Gwynn, he said he feels some people looking the other way.
Baseball's epitome of grace, the one man who could honestly be accused of playing more for the fans than for himself, is finally tired of it.
"My best season in the big leagues, no question," the 27-year-old right fielder said last week. "This has been the best year of my career--yet I'm disappointed.
"I'm disappointed because I can tell people think I had a disappointing year. I'm on a losing team, and everybody considers people on a losing team losers. Hey, I'm no loser.
"I think I've had an MVP type of season, and other people may laugh at that, but I have. Except the argument I'll hear all winter is, 'Where would the Padres be without Tony Gwynn? Just where they are now, last place.' End of argument. I'm as consistent as anyone in the game, but I don't expect any MVP votes. Not even a 10th-place vote. Sometimes, baseball isn't fair."
Gwynn, who missed a team-low five games despite several injuries, looked around the Padre clubhouse and shrugged. "Even a lot of people on the team take me for granted," he said. "That's because I'm nothing flamboyant. I just do the dirty work. You know, I might not even be the team MVP. I know the vote is going to be close."
It wasn't, because there was no vote taken. For the first time in recent memory, Padre management selected Gwynn as the team's most valuable player and handed him the award before Sunday's season finale with the Dodgers. They even had a two-minute video tribute prepared, complete with a song written just for him. While the singer spun a ballad around the theme of hard work, the video showed Gwynn running into walls and stealing second base.
If there had been a vote, it wouldn't have been close, even on this team where one guy, Benito Santiago, hit in 34 straight games, and another, John Kruk, hit 20 homers with 91 RBIs, 7 in one night.
--Gwynn led the major leagues with a. 370 average, the National League's highest in 39 years.
--Gwynn led the major leagues with 218 hits.
--Gwynn was third in the major leagues with a .446 on-base percentage.
--Gwynn was third in the major leagues with 13 triples.
--Gwynn was fourth in the major leagues with 56 stolen bases.
--Gwynn was fourth in the major leagues with 119 runs.
--Gwynn had the best month of any major leaguer, hitting .473 in June, when he was 44 for 93.
Notice that the above statistics are measured not in terms of just the National League, but of the major leagues.
Gwynn actually was the type of player never seen before in the National League, and perhaps not seen in baseball since 1922. Statistically, he is the closest thing to Ty Cobb since Ty Cobb.
Gwynn became the first player in league history to hit .370 and steal more than 50 bases. Only three other players have done that in major league history and all are Hall of Famers--George Sisler, Tris Speaker and Cobb. It was last accomplished by Sisler for the St. Louis Browns in 1922. Between 1909 and 1917, Cobb did it seven times.
"It's an incredible stat; we didn't realize that," said Steve Hirdt, vice president of Elias Sports Bureau. "It certainly shows what kind of player he has become."
Said Padre Manager Larry Bowa: "You can't tell me he's not one of the top three players in the league."
The top three players in the league? People will cite the Chicago Cubs' Andre Dawson, who had 49 homers and 136 RBIs, also for a last-place team; the St. Louis Cardinals' Jack Clark, who had 35 homers and 106 RBIs, and Cincinnati's Eric Davis, who had 37 homers and 100 RBIs.
Gwynn, in 589 at-bats, finished with 7 homers and 54 RBIs.
Switch-hitter Stanley Jefferson, in 264 at-bats from the left side, had exactly the same number of homers. Randy Ready, in 350 at-bats, had precisely the same number of RBIs.
That is why Gwynn may not get any MVP votes. That is why he may be ignored. That is why his wonderful year may end not in dance, but in disillusionment.