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Right At Home

A San Diego icon, Gwynn takes over as baseball coach of the Aztecs after a splendid career with Padres

January 30, 2003|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The most recognizable person in what is often called America's most beautiful city works in a nondescript office at a public university.

There is no plush carpeting, no leather couch; only two plain chairs and a worn swivel recliner. Rather than cherry wood, the desk is industrial steel, functional and durable like the man who sits at it. The walls are mostly barren; no self portraits, no poses with famous contemporaries. Nothing that says, here works Tony Gwynn, one of baseball's greatest hitters.

All of the awards earned over a 20-year career have been left at home. San Diego baseball fans will remember him for his 3,141 career hits -- all as a Padre -- and, in a few years, as a Hall of Famer. But his playing days are over.

Gwynn, 42, is in his first year as baseball coach at San Diego State, and he has become used to the ever-present question associated with his new gig: Why?

He has a typically straightforward answer. "Just like my playing career," he said. "I like it here."

It is the school he once played for in the city where he feels he belongs. It is home.

Gwynn's office is tucked under the seats of a stadium already named after him. But the idea of the field carrying his name certainly wasn't his idea. Padre owner John Moores offered up the money for construction -- but only if it was named after Gwynn.

"He's quite possibly the most loved person in this town," San Diego State President Stephen Weber said.

If Gwynn is known for anything as much as his hitting prowess, it's for modesty.

The only hint of his days as a high-paid major league star is the spotless customized sport utility vehicle parked just outside his office. It carries his signature near the handles of the front doors.

It's hard to say which needs Gwynn more, San Diego State, which hasn't been to the playoffs in 12 years, or college baseball, which flies under the radar of the media.

Or at least that's where it used to fly. But not here. Not anymore.

Witness Dave Kuhn, the Aztecs' longtime sports information director for baseball. On a recent morning, his office telephone was ringing almost as fast as he could jot down messages on a notebook.

Was this typical of late? "Uh, yes," he said. Has it always been this way? "Uh, no."

Season tickets doubled last year, after the announcement that Gwynn would join the staff of Jim Dietz, whom he played for from 1979 to 1981, then become coach this year. Attendance nearly tripled, and corporate support has provided a new scoreboard with video graphics.

Fellow coaches see Gwynn as a draw for a sport that gets little or no attention until the College World Series. His reputation as a player affords him immediate name recognition that even the game's winningest coaches -- USC's Mike Gillespie, Texas' Augie Garrido, Stanford's Mark Marquess -- can't match.

Rich Hill, coach at nearby University of San Diego, calls Gwynn "a great ambassador" and predicts everyone will benefit from Gwynn's presence and willingness to promote the college game.

"It's going to generate a lot of publicity for college baseball," said Hill, noting that the biggest local paper had, for the first time, assigned a reporter to the beat full time. "It's the right time for a guy like him."

At San Diego State's season opener Friday at Arizona State, Luis Gonzalez, Tony Womack and Craig Counsell of the Arizona Diamondbacks, plus former NFL quarterback Jim McMahon were among a sellout crowd of 3,972.

Arizona State, which is ranked in College Baseball's Top 10, swept three games from the Aztecs, but the draw of one of baseball's most popular players doesn't figure to wane anytime soon.

"We're excited about it," said UC Santa Barbara Coach Bob Brontsema, whose team will play host to San Diego State in a three-game series beginning Friday. "We're promoting it. I think they'd open up a booth with him signing autographs if they could."

Gwynn and his coaching staff hope to capitalize on the momentum. He promises to "get after" the nation's best high school players and college baseball's best teams.

Last season, San Diego State won 43 games but did not get invited to a regional because its schedule was deemed weak and it didn't win the Mountain West Conference tournament.

The Aztecs have never been to Omaha, site of the College World Series.

"People around here have said, 'Why not us?' " Gwynn said. "I was one of those people."

The schedule already has been significantly upgraded. Along with Arizona State, the Aztecs will play powers Miami, South Alabama and Long Beach State during nonconference play this season. Defending national champion Texas might be added as soon as next year.

USC's Gillespie said Gwynn's impact as a recruiter is already evident: The Aztecs got transfer Peter Stonard, an All-Southeastern Conference infielder from Alabama.

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