Amid strutting, crowing, Gwynn rare bird

October 20, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

Regardless of what happens in the rest of the World Series, it's already a success in one regard: Tony Gwynn is in it.

That's good news, period. Anyone who cares about baseball should be pleased that the Padres' right fielder is back in the Fall Classic at age 38, after waiting 14 years for the chance.

He's the only sure-fire Hall of Famer on either team, a career .339 hitter who has won eight National League batting titles, five Gold Gloves and 14 straight trips to the All-Star Game.

But just as important as his record is the way he has gone about building it: With loyalty, humility, unfailing good cheer, a shocking lack of greed and, well, a few extra pounds around the middle.

He's what we want in all our superstars but don't often get anymore -- a person we can admire and relate to, not necessarily in that order.

Enjoy watching him in the Series, even if the Padres get swept by the Yankees. He's from a fine, old school that's not often in session anymore.

Did you see what happened after he crushed a pitch off the facade of Yankee Stadium's upper deck in Game 1 Saturday night? It was one of those little moments that spoke volumes.

Gwynn knew the ball was gone as soon as he hit it, but he didn't fling his bat in triumph, stand at the plate admiring his work and soak up attention on a slow trot around the bases. He just ran hard until the ball was in the seats -- imagine that -- and hustled around the bases with his head down.

It was a real champion's home-run trot.

Baseball would be in better shape if more players approached the game with Gwynn's unpretentiousness and unselfishness.

Imagine a player of his status accepting millions less in salary over the years to stay in small-market San Diego, without any interest in testing the free-agent market and without any assurance that the Padres would spend to win. (They last reached the Series in 1984, when they lost to the Tigers.)

"I'm just happy in San Diego," Gwynn said last weekend. "The team has been good to me, the city has been good to me, the fans have been good to me. My family loves it there. The ballpark is a hitter's park. It's just the perfect place for me to play baseball."

Even though the Padres started over several times during his career, wasting several of his best seasons on losing baseball?

"It was a long wait to get here," he said, "but I'd do it again."

And the money he gave up?

"It wasn't a matter of money or having a chance to get to the playoffs or anything other than the fact than I'm happy there," Gwynn said.

Imagine a player so understanding of the game's institutions that he relished being heckled by Yankee Stadium's low-rent bleacher creatures. It was his first trip to the Bronx.

"Bernie [Williams] hit one hard on the ground [to right field] and I bobbled it for a second and they let me have it," he said with a smile late Sunday night, after the Yankees had hammered the Padres, 9-3, to take a 2-0 lead in the Series. "But that's OK. That's part of the game, part of the fun."

The creatures didn't heckle him for long. In the ultimate show of respect, they never mocked him with a "To-ny" serenade.

After Game 2, which was no fun for the Padres, Gwynn answered every question until the crowd at his locker dwindled to a single intern from the Yankees' publicity office, 20 years old at the most, nervously asking canned questions for office use.

"Did you enjoy playing in Yankee Stadium?" the intern asked.

"Had a blast," Gwynn said patiently. "Losing was a bummer."

The intern then asked if Gwynn would ever like to come back -- not the most shrewd question given that the Series will return to the Bronx next weekend if the Padres win two of three games in San Diego.

Listening from a nearby locker, Padres outfielder Steve Finley shook his head and muttered, "That's the stupidest question I've ever heard."

Gwynn just smiled and answered it. "I'd love to be back Saturday [for Game 6]," he said.

Another of those little moments that spoke volumes.

"And what was the best part of your experience?" the intern persisted, reading from a legal pad.

"Leaving!" Gwynn shouted with mock exasperation. Then he answered for real. "Losing was no fun. But playing in a place with this kind of tradition was a total thrill."

He did it the right way, that's for sure. He took the subway to Friday's workout and took his family on a tour of the monument park behind the left-field fence. Then he hit a huge home run, collected four hits in two games, made several fine defensive plays and generally rose to this highest of occasions.

He did everything but win, not that he didn't hold up his end of the Padres' effort.

But either way, win or lose, he has given the Series a regal touch just by showing up.

There aren't many players left like him. If this opportunity to play in the Series is his version of a lifetime achievement award, it's well-deserved.

Pub Date: 10/20/98

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