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From Padres to the Aztecs

San Diego icon Tony Gwynn tries to make his alma mater a winner

January 19, 2003|From Associated Press

SAN DIEGO — It will be an opening day like never before for Tony Gwynn.

Instead of taking his spot in right field or digging into the left-handed batter's box in the third spot in the order, Gwynn will take the lineup card out to home plate Jan. 24 at Arizona State before his first game as coach of the San Diego State Aztecs.

Less than 16 months after taking his last swing for the Padres and retiring with 3,141 hits and eight NL batting titles accumulated in 20 big league seasons, Gwynn's newest career will officially be underway with the opener of a three-game series against the Sun Devils

And now that his players are no longer in awe of him and he has pumped up the Aztecs' schedule, Gwynn hopes to take his alma mater to college baseball's big time.

"I'm having the time of my life, really," Gwynn said on a recent sunny afternoon while sitting in the visitors' dugout in 3,000-seat Tony Gwynn Stadium, rated as one of the country's best college stadiums. "Especially now because we've been working since the middle of September and guys see the light at the end of the tunnel. They see Arizona State just down the road a piece."

To Gwynn, it's almost like reporting to spring training. His players are excited too. "They're ready to start playing somebody, to get where we want to go."

Gwynn has set a lofty goal for his Aztecs, who include his son, center fielder Anthony Gwynn.

When they leave the clubhouse for the dugout, the players pass under a sign that reads: "The road to Omaha always starts through this door."

Omaha is where the College World Series is played. And despite playing in sunny San Diego, which produces a ton of prep talent, the Aztecs have never reached the College World Series. They haven't made a regional since 1991.

Gwynn hopes to change that, as well as his players' confidence.

"I want to win the whole thing," Gwynn said. "There's no waiting period, there's no grace period. Our goal is to try to be the best team we can be and win a World Series. Whether that's going to happen or not, I don't know. But we're going to prepare and try to execute like it can happen.

"I want our guys to be confident. I don't want them to have any doubt, I don't want them to feel like anybody's any better than us. If we go out there and do our thing, we should be able to compete with anybody."

That said, Gwynn cautions fans not to expect a 15-game winning streak to open the season. The pitching and defense aren't as strong as the offense, and the Aztecs also play a three-game series at Miami in late February. The home opener is Feb. 11 against South Alabama.

Gwynn is even changing the uniforms, including going back to traditional black for Friday night games. And he has tapped the contacts he made as a big leaguer to strike equipment deals to give his players the best shoes, bats and other equipment available.

He was a volunteer last season under the man who coached him at San Diego State, Jim Dietz, who retired after 31 seasons.

Gwynn admits he's worried about how the opener will go because he knows his every move will be scrutinized.

"Really, the biggest thing I'm trying to bring to the program is some credibility, some respectability, and try to get us over whatever that hurdle is of us not going to a regional for 10 years. There's lots of areas where being Tony Gwynn is a plus rather than a minus. My job is to try to capitalize on those pluses, if I can."

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