Gwynn wouldn't change a thing

Tuesday, October 20, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

SAN DIEGO -- Time grows short for Tony Gwynn. His baseball prime is slowly passing, and his window of opportunity may soon be shuttered. If he does not win now, he may never get so good a chance.

Gwynn is the best hitter of his generation, and the player most likely to be pitied at the end of the World Series. He has waited so long for this moment, and been so steadfast for the San Diego Padres, that he probably rates a permanent reward. Instead, his best-case scenario may be a temporary reprieve.

The New York Yankees have won the first two games of the World Series, and have journeyed to California resolved to wrap it up rapidly. Though their season has been splendid, the Padres would not seem equipped to do much more than delay New York's ultimate victory. Brilliant though he's always been, Tony Gwynn may be destined for ultimate disappointment.

"We've come too far to not show people that we can play this game, too," Gwynn said Monday afternoon at Qualcomm Stadium. "You know it's going to be hard in this situation, but this is when you find out what you're made of."

The Padres were quick with the cliches Monday, their backs being against the wall and all. They must defeat the most dominant team in decades tonight or face a 3-0 deficit no team has ever overcome in a postseason series. If they are ever going to win one for Tony Gwynn, now would be a good time.

He is 38 years old, still toting a Michelin around his middle, still hitting them where they ain't, still waiting to win that first World Series. Gwynn made it this far once before, in his first full season (1984), but Sparky Anderson's Detroit Tigers dispatched the Padres in five games. If Gwynn does not prevail this time, it may be a while between pennants.

San Diego voters will go to the polls next month to consider the question of a new downtown stadium. Should it fail, the Padres may soon find themselves in a fire-sale mode similar to that faced by the Florida Marlins last winter. Gwynn might soon find himself surrounded with Triple-A talent.

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He has been there before. For most of the last 15 years, Tony Gwynn has been the one constant on a team of nearly constant change. He has stuck with the Padres through bad times and terrible times, when the payroll was being slashed to smithereens, when he could have made a lot more money and won a lot more games almost anywhere else. He has won eight batting titles to date, and compiled a career average of .339, a beacon of excellence in a baseball backwater.

"I stayed for selfish reasons," he says. "I'm happy. I wanted to be here. It's been a long wait, but I'd do it again . . . People have said, "If you'd done the things you've done here in New York, you'd be more famous than I am. But that's not what I'm looking for. I kind of like doing my craft, doing my thing in anonymity."

He was standing a few feet from the first-base foul line, surrounded by a cluster of cameras and waves of reporters. Anonymity is a relative term for a millionaire athlete in a championship series, and Gwynn's stature and chatty reputation makes him a magnet in any media circus. "I haven't been here in a long time," Gwynn said Monday. "You didn't have to talk as much (in '84)."

Back then, he was a young kid sharing a stage with the savvy Steve Garvey. Today, he is baseball's hitting oracle, the successor to Ted Williams as the ultimate authority on hitting a round ball with a round bat squarely. (Williams, too, never won a World Series. Had a pretty decent career, though.)

"I'm impressed with the Yankees," Gwynn said, gently tapping his glove with a clenched fist. "I couldn't imagine those guys being as patient as they've been -- (Paul) O'Neill, (Tino) Martinez, Chili Davis, (Scott) Brosius. They've been extremely disciplined out there. It's like you're facing nine contact hitters out there."

Free swingers make easy prey in October. The good pitchers know ways to get them out, and the bad pitchers are back home wondering how.

Tony Gwynn understands this better than anyone. He is hitting .500 in the World Series. So far, it's not enough.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

SULLIVAN ARCHIVE