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Jim Murray

One Hitman Who Doesn't Look the Part

July 02, 1989|Jim Murray

You could see right away the Padres were in trouble. Oh, sure, they had the bases loaded. It was the top of the eighth but two were out and they trailed, 1-0, and you could tell the batter had problems.

He looked a little overweight. He was standing too close to the plate. His stance was too wide. He seemed to be hitting off the wrong foot. He had this small, light bat that he kept in a kind of loose-wristed waggle. You wondered why they didn't pinch-hit for him.

He was left-handed, and when the Dodgers brought in a left-hander to pitch to him, it looked like the mismatch of the century.

But only if you'd never seen Anthony Keith Gwynn bat before.

A moment later, the pitch came in, a kind of flat curve over the outside of the plate. Tony Gwynn slapped it into center field, driving in two runs--and there went the old ballgame.

Gwynn is the toughest out in the game with men on base. Once, when the subject came up as to who might hit .400 ever again in the big leagues, a sports journalist from San Diego, Phantom Phil Collier, put in, "If you could have two men on base every time he came up, Tony Gwynn would hit .600."

Gwynn may never hit .600. Or .500. But .400 is not completely out of the question.

I put the question to him at Dodger Stadium the other night while he was between stints of destroying the Dodgers. What would it take to hit .400?

Gwynn reflected. "First of all, it can be done," he said. "But whoever does it will have to walk a lot. He'll have to get a lot of infield hits and he'll have to get a lot of good pitches to hit.

"He'll have to be a selective hitter. He'll have to have a good knowledge of the pitchers. He has to be patient. You need 502 plate appearances, so you have to stay healthy."

Gwynn tends to discount Tony Gwynn as a candidate, but no one else in baseball does. The only trouble is, he has a harder time walking than a three-legged dog. He's another one of those Will Rogers hitters--he never met a pitch he didn't like. Pitchers would be only too happy to walk him. Tony won't let them.

If someone told you he had a guy who had hit better than .300 every year of his major league career, had hit .370, .351 and .329 in recent years and had won three league batting championships, Gwynn is not the player who would come to mind.

Tony is not your basic triangle-shaped Adonis. Tony needs his pants let out. He doesn't do underwear ads. Tony never lifted a barbell or rode an Exercycle in his life. The Mr. America field is safe from him. He's even got a baby face.

Just don't throw him a curveball. His eyesight is 20/15, he has the reflexes of something that has stripes or spots and makes its living crouched in bushes. As the old saying goes, it's easier to get a steak past a hungry lion than a fastball past Tony Gwynn.

He looks slow. But don't take a windup if he gets on base. Gwynn has stolen 206 bases, 56 of them in one season.

Tony typically pooh-poohs it. He prefers to take you by surprise. "I'm quick, not fast," he says soothingly. As the cat said to the canary.

Tony Gwynn was not batting .400 as the month came to an end. But he was hitting .361 and leading the league.

Last year at this time, Gwynn was batting .246, the worst start of his career. But by season's end, he was once again leading the league. He raised his average from a June low of .237 to .313, which, even though it was the lowest ever to win the National League batting title, was still 76 points over his mid-year totals.

If he raises his average 76 points again the last half of this year, he makes the world forget Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby, to say nothing of Ted Williams and Bill Terry.

But it's probably not sliders and night ball and relief pitchers who mitigate most against a batter averaging .400 today. It's the media circus that would accompany any player who got close.

Reporters would be camped on his doorstep, shower stall, locker, the back seat of his car. He would be on camera more than Dan Quayle.

It was no big deal to hit .400 in Cobb's day. He did it three times. So did Hornsby. George Sisler did it twice. Napoleon Lajoie did it and so did Shoeless Joe Jackson and Harry Heilmann. When Bill Terry did it in 1930, it had only been six years since the last time. When Williams did it in 1941, it had only been 11. But now, it's been 48 years since it was last done. The media heat would be Saharan.

League opinion is that Gwynn might be able to handle it, might, in fact, welcome it. Tony is one of the best-kept secrets in sport. He may be the best hitter in the game today and one of history's best. But he's no statue in the park.

"I've never even been on the cover of Sports Illustrated," he tells you.

You want glamour, you go to Darryl Strawberry. You want base hits, you go to Tony Gwynn.

A sunny, rational type whom his manager calls "the most unselfish ballplayer I've ever seen in my life," Tony could do with a little hype.

Would it affect his hitting?

Manager Jack McKeon scoffs. "Tony could get a hit in a forest fire," he says.

He could probably go three for four in an earthquake.

If he nears or gets to .400, the pitchers in the league may take up a collection to send him to Vic Tanny's or buy him a Nautilus. As the former great pitcher, Don Sutton, once growled, "a guy that dangerous should look the part."

I mean, Jack the Ripper shouldn't have curls.

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