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San Diego Sportscene

What's Going on Here? A Padre Knows Best

November 21, 1987|Dave Distel

Just past the halfway mark, San Diego is in first place. Its advantage may not be sufficient that it can kick into cruise control, but it has breathing room.

And yet . . .

Opponents are saying: "Are these guys for real? When will the bubble burst?"

Fans are saying: "Are these guys for real? When will the bubble burst?"

Writers and broadcasters are saying: "Are these guys for real? When will the bubble burst?"

The landscape is covered with skeptics. The national media, in fact, have so little regard for these guys that they treat them almost as if they are mere illusions.

Naturally, I am writing about the Chargers. Yes and no. I am writing about the Chargers in the sense that what they are doing takes me back to what the Padres did in 1984.

Isn't this whole scenario quite familiar?

The Chargers are encountering what the Padres encountered.

Surely, the Padres would collapse.

Surely, the Chargers will collapse.

Tony Gwynn laughed and then sighed. The parallels are eerie. He thinks about things like this. He follows sports so avidly that he is as much a superstar fan as he is a superstar player.

The Chargers happen to be his favorite National Football League team, and they have been since he came to San Diego in 1977 to go to San Diego State. They have remained his favorites as he became a local hero himself as a two-time National League batting champion with the Padres.

"Thank goodness for the Chargers," he said. "They've made Sundays interesting again."

Unexpectedly so. No one figured these Chargers to be any better than a .500 team, if that good . . . just as no one figured the 1984 Padres to be any better than the .500 team they had been the previous two seasons.

"It is a lot like it was for us," Gwynn said. "People didn't expect the Chargers to do this well, and no one expected us to do that well."

Those Padres kept it going. They won the National League West by 12 games. They came from two games down to beat the Chicago Cubs, America's darlings that summer, in the NL Championship Series. They did not come up short until the World Series, and there's no shame in that.

As Gwynn talks about the Chargers now, he could be talking about the Padres then.

"The national TV people don't seem to believe the Chargers have that good a ballclub," he said. "They say the Chargers haven't proven that they can play. It's like they're waiting for them to fail."

And what are the perceptions of Tony Gwynn, the fan?

"Hey, the replacement players played great and got the record to 4-1," he said. "The regular players went out as a team and came back as a team and kept it together. They've beaten Kansas City, Cleveland, Indianapolis and the Raiders, and they're playing with confidence. I think their time has come. I think they have a legitimate chance to get to the Super Bowl."

Of course, all that confidence and credibility will get yet another test Sunday when the Chargers play at the Decibeldome in Seattle.

"That's a real test," Gwynn said. "Playing a strong team from their division on the road. If they play tough and find a way to win that one, it'll do a lot for them."

That's the way it is in the NFL. Each game seems to get bigger than the one before, which was the biggest of the year.

"I think people are more excited about the Chargers than they were about us," Gwynn said. "The intensity level is higher because the season's shorter and there's one game each week. It's a lot different than a baseball season. For us, we're more likely to have a big series than a big game, and we feel like we've accomplished something if we take two out of three."

Indeed, each football game becomes a command performance. It hasn't been that way for the Chargers since 1982, their last playoff year.

"Their fans haven't had to wait as long as ours did," Gwynn said, "but they've gone through a lot of tough times the last few years. They're cheering now like they did in the early '80s and late '70s. People are excited, and, believe me, fans play a big part."

Gwynn himself has not been a face in the crowd at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. It has been a couple of years since he has been to a game.

"It's too crazy in the stands," he said. "I just sit home and make sure my (satellite) dish is aimed in the right direction."

Naturally, Tony Gwynn will be in front of his wide-screen television Sunday afternoon when his favorite football team hopes to continue its defiance of gravity and skeptics . . . and do unto football what the Padres did unto baseball in 1984.

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