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His Lament Has a Silver Lining

September 19, 1997|J.A. ADANDE

SAN DIEGO — Tony Gwynn is among the best at what he does. He's happy and he's paid millions of dollars for a job that lets him spend the bulk of the time standing outside in the best climate in the country.

So why should we feel sorry for him?

He warrants our sympathy because when you do your job well, when you treat others with respect, you deserve the best your world can give back to you. Tony Gwynn deserves a championship. Or at least a legitimate shot at one. Another season is drawing to a close. There's a small chance it could end with Gwynn winning his eighth batting title. There's no chance it could end with him winning his first World Series title.

Even though he has set personal records for home runs and RBIs, he considers this season among his most disappointing.

His San Diego Padres have a firm grip on last place in the National League West. After winning the West last year, they're about a dozen games out of first place this year and light years away from contending for a championship any time soon. When it comes to money, the Padres just can't keep up.

They play in one of the smallest television markets in baseball. How are they supposed to compete with an Atlanta Braves franchise that broadcasts games on its own superstation and pulls more than 30,000 fans a night into its new ballpark?

While the owners were bickering over revenue-sharing plans that could help make the distribution of talent more equal, Padre management unloaded every big salary it could, letting the likes of Fred McGriff and Joe Carter go off to help other teams win championships.

Gwynn stayed behind. He's a Southern California native who went to San Diego State. If he wins a World Series, he wants to do it in a Padre uniform. Some might say Gwynn is at fault for not heading to a franchise with more championship potential. But loyalty merits compassion. And you can't blame a man for doing what he feels is right.

"I could have gone somewhere else and had a better opportunity to win, I think," Gwynn said. "But whether or not I was going to be happy, that was the biggest question for me. I wanted to be someplace where I was happy. I felt that was the first thing. Because If I'm happy and my family's happy, you can deal with pretty much anything that goes on.

"But if you're winning and you're not happy being where you're at, that's a lot to ask for, I think. For me, making that decision to stay here was an easy one. Now, you have to deal with, OK, you're not winning as much as you'd like to, is that going to weigh more on you than being happy? I don't think so. So I think being happy is first and foremost. And that I am; I'm happy here. But still, you want to be greedy. You want the whole shebang."

When you give so much to others, as Gwynn has, you're entitled to some greed. There's not enough space to detail all of the goodwill Gwynn spreads that makes him so beloved by the fans, but five minutes on Thursday was all it took to see what kind of person Gwynn is.

Although he's a preparation fanatic, he took time out before San Diego's game against the Colorado Rockies to give a Tony Gwynn model bat and batting gloves to a special guest of the Padres, a young man in a wheelchair. "I know they gave you a lot of stuff, but I wanted you to have something extra," Gwynn told him.

Then he signed a couple of baseballs for the team's community relations director and actually seemed disappointed that she had not brought more, since this is the team's last homestand. That's typical Tony.

When the Padres don't succeed, you can't blame Gwynn. In his worst season, he hit .309. This will be his seventh season with a batting average above .350.

Gwynn just does his job. His job is to get hits, which he collects at a rate that ranks him among the all-time greats. If he can overtake Colorado's Larry Walker (Walker is hitting .372, Gwynn is hitting .365) he will win his eighth batting title. That would tie him with Honus Wagner for the most National League batting crowns. Ty Cobb holds the American League record with 12.

But the only time Gwynn makes headlines is when he flirts with .400. He was at it again this season, carrying a .400 average into mid-July. He was at .390 on Aug. 5, but had a kidney stone later in the week that kept him out for five games. He has been hitting a substandard-for-him .300 ever since.

Gwynn believes the best route to a .400 season is to hover just below the mark, then get on a hot streak at the end. He was right on track in 1994, hitting .394 through August, when Bud Selig, Jerry Reinsdorf and Co. forced the strike that canceled the rest of the season and the World Series. Once again, economics got in the way of Gwynn's glory.

Gwynn is 37 now. A few gray hairs stand out amid the stubble on his unshaven face. Those noises he hears aren't the sound of bats meeting balls; they are the sounds of a clock.

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