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Gwynn takes place among greats

Former San Diego Padres outfielder is excited about today's induction ceremony but also `scared to death.'

July 29, 2007|From the Associated Press

SAN DIEGO — As the perks of a Hall of Fame career piled up -- a bronze statue at the ballpark, his image on a Wheaties box, a party fit for a Hollywood star -- Tony Gwynn let his mind wander back to his humble beginnings in pro baseball.

He roomed with John Kruk in rookie ball in the summer of 1981 and the two rode their bikes to the ballpark. They wondered how they'd ever show their talent when the bats the team provided were bigger than the ones they had been swinging.

"I can remember us sitting on the back of a bus in Walla Walla, Wash., it's 100 degrees and the windows wouldn't open, we're drinking Coca-Colas and talking about how great one day it would be if we could ever get to the big leagues," Gwynn said.

He made it, all right, all the way to Cooperstown.

One of the game's greatest contact hitters, Gwynn will be inducted into the Hall of Fame today, along with Cal Ripken Jr.

"I think the magnitude of it is starting to hit me square in the face, because every night I have trouble sleeping, and every day you have to write something down," Gwynn said. "I look forward to it, but at the same time, I'm scared to death."

His orientation trip to Cooperstown several weeks ago gave him an idea of what he's getting into.

He saw Jackie Robinson's glove, held Babe Ruth's bat, read Walter Johnson's plaque.

"Yeah, I would have loved to have taken a whack off of him or Babe Ruth or any of those guys," said Gwynn, who earned a spot in Cooperstown with a sweet left-handed stroke responsible for 3,141 hits, eight NL batting titles and a career .338 average in 20 seasons, all with the San Diego Padres.

"Part of the fun for me with the Hall of Fame is just imagining," he said. "Imagine what it would have been like to play against Lou Gehrig or Jackie Robinson or any of those guys, and to know you're going to have a plaque in there, where they have a plaque. Oh, that's pretty cool. It just doesn't get any better than that."

When John Madden was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer, he said he believed that the busts speak to each other at night, when the visitors are all gone.

Gwynn agrees.

"It would be pretty cool to have some conversations, because that's what I'd be doing. I wouldn't be talking, I would be listening."

Gwynn grew up in the Los Angeles area and saw future Hall of Famers come through Dodger Stadium, such as Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Mike Schmidt and Richie Allen.

Later he got to play against some of them and he was never shy about picking their brains.

Gwynn befriended San Diego native Ted Williams at the 1992 All-Star game in San Diego. For years after that, the two went round and round about hitting when they got together. It was Gwynn who helped steady the Splendid Splinter as he prepared to throw the ceremonial first pitch before the 1999 All-Star game at Fenway Park.

Gwynn might have become the first player since Williams to hit .400 if the players hadn't gone on strike in August 1994. He was hitting .394 at the time, and getting better.

Gwynn wouldn't reveal much about his induction speech, but he does plan to acknowledge several Hall of Famers who will be sitting behind him on the podium.

"A lot of them helped me more than they'll ever know, because I was always asking questions. I was always being a pest because I wanted to get better, and I felt like, who better, let me go to Rod Carew, ask him a question. Let me ask Mike Schmidt. Ozzie Smith. Willie Mays, Hank Aaron.

"I can go on and on -- George Brett, [Paul] Molitor -- about guys that you were fortunate to have a conversation with. And again, ultimately, you've got to have an open mind because no matter how good of a hitter you were, there was always room for improvement. If somebody had a better way, a better angle, or a better anything to make me a better hitter, why not ask a question?"

And he was a pretty good hitter. He got so good at hitting the ball between shortstop and third base that, in a twist on the numbers used to keep score, he nicknamed it the "5.5. hole."

Three of his contemporaries, all of whom either have Hall of Fame credentials or soon will, recalled Gwynn's hitting prowess.

"If I want to be optimistic, I say I got him out about 40 times," said Greg Maddux, who's won 340 career games and four Cy Young Awards. "If I wanted to truthful, I think he hit over .400 off me, or close to it."

Maddux, in his first season with the Padres, said that by facing Gwynn, he learned that pitchers beat lineups, not hitters.

"If you wanted to beat the Padres, you had face Tony Gwynn with nobody on," Maddux said.

New York Mets first base coach Rickey Henderson said it was an honor to have been Gwynn's teammate.

"He loved the game and he studied the game," said Henderson, who got his 3,000th hit in Gwynn's last game in 2001. "He was a scientist."

Mets pitcher Tom Glavine, closing in on 300 wins, remembers Gwynn being the consummate professional hitter.

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