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The Right Choice

Gwynn picked baseball over the NBA, and on Tuesday could be a Hall of Famer

January 07, 2007|Bernie Wilson | Associated Press

SAN DIEGO — One day in June 1981, Tony Gwynn was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the morning and the San Diego Clippers in the afternoon.

Which sport should the kid with the afro pick? The NBA, where he figured he could make it for maybe a year? Or baseball, which he also played at San Diego State?

Eight National League batting titles, 3,141 hits and a .338 lifetime average later, Gwynn awaits the ultimate affirmation of that choice. On Tuesday, he's expected to be voted into the Hall of Fame after appearing on the ballot for the first time.

"I wasn't a real home run hitter, a big RBI guy," Gwynn, San Diego State's baseball coach, said during an interview at the cozy ballpark that bears his name. "My forte was putting the bat on the ball. To get into the Hall of Fame for me would just mean validation that I could be that kind of player and be very good at it and be rewarded for being that type of player.

"Since I've retired I think the game has put even more emphasis on being able to hit the ball out of the park, and that's a great thing to be able to do. But I think there's still a place in the game for that guy who can create stuff, who can put the bat on the ball, who can get on base hit, steal a base, score a run."

That was Gwynn, playing among big boppers in an era tarnished by steroids.

The only doubts about Gwynn are why he stayed with the Padres his entire 20-season career, through many more bad seasons than good.

He could have made more money elsewhere but was comfortable in San Diego, where the spotlight isn't as intense as in New York or Los Angeles.

A 15-time All-Star, Gwynn made a career out of wearing out the gaps with singles and doubles. With his sweet left-handed swing, Gwynn loved to hit the ball the opposite way, between third base and shortstop. Because baseball scorekeepers designate third base as 5 and shortstop as 6, Gwynn called it the "5.5 hole."

He made a serious run at hitting .400 in 1994, topping out at .394 before the players went on strike Aug. 12.

Gwynn's favorite hit didn't count in his official totals.

In Game 1 of the 1998 World Series, Gwynn turned on a pitch by San Diego native and fellow lefty David Wells, driving it off the facade of Yankee Stadium's upper deck for a home run.

The prevailing reaction?

"Shock. And I remember it," Gwynn said. "One of the reasons why is because after that game, you're dealing with the New York press. You just lost a game that you led 5-2 and one of the New York guys asked me, had I ever hit a ball that far before. I said, 'Yeah. It's not my fault you never saw me play.' I think he was kind of taken back by that.

"But you roll into Yankee Stadium, and unfortunately or fortunately, a lot of people hadn't really thought about what you were able to do in your career. They knew I was a pretty good hitter, but that was kind of the last thing people expected."

The Padres were swept in that Series and haven't been back since. Gwynn also played in the 1984 World Series, which San Diego lost in five games to Detroit.

Now, he's looking forward to a trip to Cooperstown.

Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. are expected to be shoo-ins for the Hall of Fame. Also on the ballot is Mark McGwire, who is expected to be judged harshly by the Baseball Writers Assn. of America members who vote for the Hall of Fame.

Gwynn says he thinks McGwire, who has denied using illegal performance-enhancing substances, is a Hall of Famer.

"I think I would vote for him," Gwynn said. "I think I would vote for a lot of those guys who are considered to have done it. Just because they're considered, how many other guys on that list did or didn't, and aren't in that shadow of a doubt that people have put those guys in?

"It's unfortunate, because I played in the middle of the steroid era. There's nothing I can do about that. You look at my numbers. I don't think steroids are going to be the first thing you think about."

So what helped Gwynn became one of baseball's greats?

"Just good old-fashioned hard work. And again, understanding what type of hitter I was. I knew if I could make that shortstop take a couple of steps to his right, he was going to have a hard time throwing me out. Early on, understanding what I needed to do to get that ball in that direction.

"I knew I didn't drive the ball really well, but I needed to be able to drive it in the gaps between the outfielders in order to keep having success, and was able to do it."

Gwynn retired after the 2001 season. He spent a season as a volunteer assistant at San Diego State, then took over as head coach. He's 113-132 in four seasons and hasn't gotten the Aztecs beyond the Mountain West Conference tournament.

"In college baseball, you need to get to a regional. And we haven't done that in 15 years," he said. "I'm feeling the heat. I need to win some games this year."

His son, Tony Jr., played for him with the Aztecs, then made his major league debut last season with the Milwaukee Brewers.

"It's been awesome," Gwynn said. "To me that's even been better than waiting around for this, to be honest."

Gwynn thinks back to his college days, when he played point guard for the basketball team and set the school's game, season and career assists records, which still stand.

"I had played baseball my whole life but never really concentrated on it," he said. "And I knew that if I was going to make it professionally, this was going to be my best shot."

During his final basketball season, he would steal away when possible to the baseball field to work on his hitting and defense.

Then came that distinctive draft day, when the Clippers picked him.

"It was a nice gesture. But I knew where I needed to go. I knew in my own mind I could play big league ball. You just didn't know when the opportunity was going to present itself."

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